Advice for workers receiving performance reviews is often circulated, but what about advice for managers?
Since managers who review other managers represent a rarer breed, they often get lost in the advice shuffle. But it’s important for senior executives—those above the direct supervisor level—to provide a blueprint for the performance review process that the rest of the workforce can follow. Supervisors can only learn to review their direct reports properly if those above them set the right example in the first place. After all, people are unlikely to handle performance reviews well if the wrong example is set.
The general rule of thumb is this: The performance review is not a one-time event; it is the culmination of an ongoing process. In my view, there are seven basic steps, but only the last few steps even deal with the nitty-gritty of the review itself. Most of a manager’s time should be spent laying a sturdy foundation for the next review and those to follow:
- Start the process by sharing strategic issues and challenges for your team, asking managers if they would add or change the group’s shorter- and longer-term objectives—and why. Ask your managerial team to develop a list of what they think should be their individual objectives and then brainstorm with each of them in more detail. The goal is to finalize an agreed-upon list, and then dive into milestones and related dimensions.
- Sit down together and go over the final list, making sure that you provide feedback and agree on the measures of success (e.g. the milestones) for the year. If there is disagreement, managers need the team to understand why a certain milestone cannot or should not be part of the discussion.
- Have periodic “update conversations” —both one-on-one and team-wide—about the current status of key objectives, namely if and to what extent they are being met over time. Managers should also communicate that, from time to time, new objectives may arise during the year, while others may drop off or be deferred due to work overload, external variables, and other factors.
- At least at the six-month mark, instruct managers to provide a written status report and self-assessment, so there are no last-minute surprises if you happen to differ about the level of progress being made. Like all employees, managers need to be given an appropriate amount of time to respond before the year-end review, making performance adjustments as necessary. Remember: Adjustments can take months to execute.
- Right before the year-end performance review, encourage managers to provide a “final” status report (i.e. a self-assessment). They are the ones who should be clear about what they have accomplished (or not), and how that jives with the joint expectations that you have established. So give them an opportunity to weigh in.
- Using the status report and self-assessment, prepare feedback notes that structure the performance review clearly and coherently. You should always begin with an overall commentary on the manager’s positive contributions to the team and progress over time—inherently and in relation to those around them. Then delve in specifics: Follow up your overall commentary with short bullet points, confirming and congratulating them on the objectives that you deem satisfactorily met or exceeded. If there are any shortfalls to discuss, make it a joint commentary, saying something like: “We are both disappointed about Objective X not crossing the finish line.” Then, open up the floor for the manager’s own comments and perspectives, so the performance review can constructively serve as a moment of learning.
- Have a robust discussion in-person. By leading with an acknowledgement of and appreciation for the “positives,” the manager being reviewed is less likely to respond adversely to the “negatives.” Of course, you shouldn’t mention the word “negative” at all, but rather frame it like an “opportunity for improvement.” After that, you can wrap up with an invitation to have a follow-up review session, where you can work together on a remediation plan that can help actualize those opportunities into real improvements.
Overall, the goal of a performance review is to help managers see the “why”—that is, why they are working in a certain way and how it fits into group strategy writ large. Understanding the “why” allows managers to make better implementation decisions and feel more empowered on the job, and that ultimately ends ups benefitting those further down the corporate ladder. Empowered managers are more likely to empower those who report to them as well.
By making the review process a collaborative one, managers begin to see objectives as their own and not just dictates from above. The process changes slightly between senior managers and first- or second-line ones, since the review structure varies by team, but the elements of collaboration remain the same. Positive reinforcement and constructive criticism—again, framed as opportunity for improvement—apply at all levels of the corporate ladder.
As a manager and a leader, the most important part of your job is to develop a shared vision of the work at hand, and then help your people act to implement it. With that duty in mind, the performance review cycle isn’t just a sideshow; it lies at the heart of the implementation of vision. Powered by the “why,” strong reviews lead to the strongest possible job performance.