The Key to Pain-Free Performance Reviews

For some people performance reviews have a reputation as soul-crushing events in which employees are ranked against each other and rewarded based on favoritism. In recent years annual top-down performance appraisals based on numerical ratings have been replaced or supplemented with ongoing coaching, monthly and quarterly plans. Here are four tips to reduce employee stress when it comes to performance reviews. 

1. Provide ongoing coaching

“Most people are calm when it comes time for the performance review [at our company],” said Steve Hughes, a project manager at a civil engineering firm. “We provide feedback along the way so they should already know where they stand.” At his firm employees and supervisors or managers are encouraged to engage one another and provide/ask for constructive feedback as often as needed—even daily—to create a positive work culture.

Seth Barnes, head of marketing at, agrees that constant dialogue helps people know where they stand and what’s expected of them. “Checking in should be a regular thing, not just a formal meeting once a quarter where the stakes are so high.”

Hiring both managers and individual contributors who are accustomed to a company culture of ongoing feedback help reduce stress when it comes time for annual, mid-year or quarterly reviews. Ask candidates what their expectations are for giving and receiving feedback and probe for how they approach constructive criticism.

Said Hughes, “The right mentors can make people feel engaged and promote of feeling of worth and pride.”

2. Set a mix of realistic goals and challenges

“We clearly define objectives and measure our performance against them,” Barnes said. “I like how these individual goals roll up into department, company and ultimate corporate goals.”

Tying company goals to personal goals gives employees a feeling of personal success as well as value. “It feels good to look back at a goal and point to a specific metric showing the goal was met,” Barnes said.

At Hughes’ company, “performance discussions are intended to be a recap of the past year with a summary of expectations or goals that were met, exceeded, or not met. This is not supposed to be the first time this is discussed, but sometimes it may be.”

A lack of ongoing coaching can backfire at review time if the project hasn’t been going well. “The danger is biting off a goal in the short term that’s too audacious or simply unachievable and then having to call it a complete failure,” Barnes said.

When hiring, probe candidates about how they met or exceeded the actual goals of past positions, not just the accomplishments listed on their resume.

3. Hire for motivation and also foster it

“You want smart, analytical people who most importantly are motivated,” said Barnes about his own team of online marketers. “I’ve found in the tech space that solving challenging problems and working in a group of like-minded people is what motivates many.”

But it’s not all up to the employee. Managers must be able to provide career guidance and resources. “Often my team struggles with defining their goals, aspirations and potential resources for personal or professional growth,” said Hughes. “Sometimes we encourage peer-on-peer conversations for ideas or reaching out to other managers, human resource personnel for tips.” Part of motivating employees is exposing them to more options to help them decide what new goals they want to pursue. 

“Making sure everyone has something interesting to work on is key,” Barnes said.

When interviewing, probe candidates on how they evolved in past roles and what motivated them to perform. Question candidates for manager positions on how they assist in their direct reports’ development.

4. Separate performance reviews from compensation discussions

Hughes said that at his company compensation adjustments are done company-wide at a time outside of the semi-annual performance appraisals. “This separates any conversational anxiety that may be associated with compensation from the performance discussion.” Without compensation to worry about, employees and managers can focus on what’s most important: goals and performance against those goals.

When managers and their direct reports receive ongoing coaching, are aligned in terms of goals and challenges and are provided with motivating opportunities, performance review anxiety can become what it should be—a thing of the past.


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