The Ten Commandments of Flawless Performance Reviews
How to ace your next performance appraisal
Sweaty palms, knotted stomachs, anxiety, frustration, and lots of guesswork.
These are some of the words that come to mind when thinking of the dreaded, twice-a-year ordeal of performance reviews.
But performance reviews are a recent phenomenon, with their roots in the early and mid-20th-century industrial era. Back then, they were a massive step towards evaluating people at their job and getting their feedback. The purpose was to look at employees as people driven by motivations, goals and aspirations, rather than cogs in a machine.
In 1970, the consultant Aubrey Daniels coined the term performance management.
Ever since then, we've accepted performance reviews as gospel. But almost everyone in organizations hates the appraisal process, and they did back in the '80s or '90s, too. It can't just be dragged into the digital era; it needs a revamp. Good thing there’s nothing sacred about it.
It’s time to listen to the critics and design new performance appraisal systems and conduct better evaluations.
A performance review, also known as performance appraisal or performance evaluation, is a formal assessment in which managers evaluate a team member’s work performance against pre-agreed expectations, identify strengths and weaknesses, offer feedback, and set future performance goals.
There’s A LOT to be said about traditional performance reviews, and most of it is terrible right now. If you take a look at research data, you might wonder why we even bother with this process that is so flawed in its traditional iteration.
For example, a meta-analysis showed that traditional performance reviews are so bad that they make performance worse about one-third of the time! And according to Gallup’s research, only 14% of people strongly agree their performance reviews inspire them to improve. It makes sense since there’s no way to get better at something you only hear about once a year.
In a 13,000 people survey performed by CEB, a whopping 65% of the respondents said their current performance review process isn’t relevant to their jobs, and 66% said it interferes with their productivity. But 96% of people say they want to hear feedback regularly, so something has gone wrong with the performance management process.
Communicating more could be one way to patch things up, especially since people need to be able to trust their managers. A Harvard Business Review survey found that 58% of the respondents trust strangers, but only 42% trust their own boss! To make things more dire, Gallup reports that managers are responsible for at least 70% of their teams’ engagement variance. It’s not a good look, and regular feedback needs to become the norm in work environments.
But it’s not just team members who are unhappy. About 95% of managers say they aren’t satisfied with their organizations’ performance management process either. To add insult to injury, only 10% of HR professionals believe their companies’ reviews provide accurate information, CEB researchers found.
It’s no wonder that people aren’t leaving their performance reviews with helpful insights into their professional life. Instead, they're walking away disappointed and feeling bad about themselves. And this often translates to decreased performance and less motivation.
But it couldn’t be any other way following traditional appraisal methods, because most reviews rely on managers’ memory. A manager can't remember an entire year's worth of performance indicators for every person without serious help in an office filled with people. This leads to biased reviews and missed opportunities for growth.
As unbelievable as it sounds at this point, there are also good things about performance reviews.
At its core, the performance appraisal is a practice driven by two purposes:
- Motivate people to perform better
- Justify salary actions
And the documentation reviews produce is a business necessity. The collected data allows organizations to make important decisions, including when to fire someone.
When done right, performance reviews help people understand what they’re doing well, how they can improve, how their work aligns with company goals, and what is expected of them.
From a manager’s perspective, reviews let them spot high performing members, correct issues before they become problems, communicate expectations, encourage growth and development, and foster employee engagement.
Today, businesses no longer have clear annual cycles. Projects tend to be short-term and change a lot along the way. Goals and tasks can’t be plotted a year in advance with much accuracy anymore.
Traditional performance review techniques are now outdated and can’t serve value-based, vision-driven, and collaborative work environments. As a result of all their limitations, more and more companies are dropping them.
Holding people accountable for the past at the expense of improving performance and grooming talent for the future is giving way to regular conversations about performance and competitiveness.
What’s also encouraging the switch from traditional to modern performance assessments is the job market. It’s now easier for companies to invest in retaining talent, rather than looking for new candidates.
The ten commandments of flawless performance reviews
If you want to ace your next performance review, here’s what you should keep an eye on.
1. Understand how you will be evaluated
As humans, we do not like uncertainty. Let me repeat this. We do not like uncertainty.
We hate it so much; research shows we’d much rather receive an electric shock than having a 50/50 chance of getting one!
So, because an opaque performance review process can only be anxiety-riddled, you need to clarify the unknowns.
First off, your review should start with clear goals that have been set well in advance. If you're on the same page with your manager about these, your heavy lifting is done.
A healthy organization will have guidelines for your role to lead your professional development. These help build a shared understanding of what good performance means and avoid comparing people to each other.
Then there’s the matter of logistics. If a predefined review format is used in your company or by your manager, ask for it well in advance. Use it to get familiar with the process and self-evaluate. It will reduce the uncertainty associated with the process and align your expectations with your manager’s.
If you’re new on a team, talk to your manager or colleagues beforehand, and see what you’re in for. Trying to wing it is just wishful thinking, aka not a winning strategy.
2. Make sure the right things get measured
A common mistake during the review process is to evaluate traits, rather than behaviors and results.
But the problem with personality traits like leadership, motivation, or conscientiousness is that they're internal and subjective. A manager or your peers could never evaluate them fairly unless they have some serious training in psychology.
Instead of traits, make sure your evaluation stays focused on two things:
- Your behaviors as observable actions: you created a presentation deck, you reached out to your customers, and so on.
- Your results as visible outcomes of your activities: you increased your sales quotas, you finished your projects on time, etc.
- Communication skills
- Collaboration and teamwork abilities
- Problem-solving skills
- Attendance, punctuality, and reliability
- The ability to accomplish goals and meet deadlines
They all need to be translated into Objectives and Key Results, they can't just show up as performance indicators on your reviews.
And while we're at this, let me throw another wrench in how performance reviews sometimes happen.
You might be familiar with the business adage of What gets measured, gets managed. But it's not that what doesn't get measured doesn't get managed. It's way worse than that.
What's not measured doesn't exist!
It’s the tyranny of the quantifiable and something you should consider when you commit to your next set of business goals with your boss. If there's more than meets the eye to your tasks, make sure to highlight it. Otherwise, you risk being the only one knowing how much you do day after day after day.
3. Know the logistics
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu famously said that Every battle is won before it’s ever fought. And there’s no time like review time to channel your inner strategist, right?
Start small, and don’t let the meeting sneak up on your calendar. Ask about it at least a month before, and get clear on its purpose.
Will you be dealing with:
- A salary adjustment meeting,
- A two-sided performance review
- A one-sided discussion of your placement on the dreaded performance improvement plan
- A combination of these?
Don’t be afraid to ask for an agenda and add your topics to it. Performance reviews aren’t one-way streets, and your implication is as crucial as your manager’s.
See what you need to bring to the meeting and consider things from your manager’s perspective as well. Take into account what information they will use. If your accomplishments don’t align with your priorities, use your time to clarify the situation, and improve what you can.
Getting a positive outcome out of a performance review means preparing well in advance. Get into the habit of keeping notes on the projects you’re working on. It will help you build a case for yourself during performance evaluation.
4. Have the right approach to performance review meetings
Performance review meetings are often one-sided, with a manager yapping about your misgivings, and you sitting there, trying not to rock the boat. But this is a recipe for disaster for your career, growth, and mental state. Just because someone has more formal authority than you, it doesn't mean they get absolute control over you.
You are not in a performance review meeting only to listen, acknowledge, and accept everything your manager has to say. Make it all about the future, and find out what's next for you and the company.
However, you are the best person to find ways to do your job more efficiently. Ask for the freedom of setting goals and the support you need to achieve them. Empower yourself. Turn your meeting into a conversation, exchange information, and pass on valuable insights.
5. Get in touch with your emotions
Performance reviews are not just about cold hard data and milestones. As human beings, we’re governed by many emotions, and we can’t pretend to leave them at the door when going to work.
When you’re part of a team, you’re at peak productivity when you’re happy. So, it’s in your company’s best interest to keep you with a smile on your face. The alternative of looking for someone else and training them to do your job isn't that attractive.
If you have ideas for increasing your happiness level, voice them, whether they’re about your work-life balance or the type of work you’re getting. Acknowledge your feelings about your job and treat them as an integral part of it. Discuss them, particularly if you want an open communication line with your manager.
Ideally, your manager should make you feel seen and respected. And because it’s not all about how many tasks you aced lately, your mental and emotional state should also be discussed in your evaluation. This isn’t turning your boss into your therapist, but getting coached more effectively.
Communicate your feelings often to avoid festering issues. There’s no need to torment yourself for months when your manager could quickly find or approve a fix for what’s been ailing you.
The environment where your performance assessment meeting happens also plays a part in setting the tone of the discussion. Be mindful of the place, time, and privacy of a performance review. Having it in full view and earshot of other people is far from ideal. Pick a quiet, private place at a time when both participants are rested and focused.
6. Be aware of the biases baked into the process
The failure to think clearly, or what experts call a cognitive error, is a systematic deviation from logic, reasonable thought, and behavior. The bad news is they're not occasional lapses in judgment, but routine mistakes and repeated patterns governing our lives from the shadows.
The good news is that not all biases are harmful, and we're all dealing with these repeating patterns. They affect you, your managers, your colleagues, and pretty much everyone else.
Researchers have identified over 150 biases, and some impact on professional lives and review times more than others. Let's take a closer look at them.
Let's start with one of the most significant biases ruling our lives at work: the illusion of control. It's the tendency to believe we can influence something we have no control over. But the idea we can be in charge of our trajectory even for a bit sure is sweet and gives us hope.
However, we can all relax. Nothing is under control.
This brings us to the next cognitive error making our office worlds go round: the planning fallacy. That's the phenomenon of optimism taking over us and making us underestimate how much time we need for a task.
As a result, our plans are absurdly ambitious, and we systematically take on too much. And it also looks like we never learn since we look at our to-do lists and label our lofty goals as attainable in 8 hours.
The planning fallacy is even more obvious when people work together. Groups consistently overestimate things like duration and benefits and underestimate costs and risks.
It's all a cocktail of wishful thinking, a desire for success, way too much focus on our projects, and not enough on outside influences. But life still happens, even when we're trying to make it big.
As humans, we tend to continue an activity once we've poured time, effort, money, or love into it. But this is the sunk cost fallacy, paired with an inability to cut your losses.
Beware of doing a task for the wrong reasons, like justifying non-recoverable investments. Sometimes, projects go belly-up, and you need to accept this. Doubling down your efforts doesn't always guarantee success.
However, this goes hand in hand with effort justification. When you put a lot of effort into a task, you tend to reevaluate the results. If you spent weeks working on a strategy, you have a hard time appraising it. Especially if your natural self-serving bias gets into the picture. That's the common habit of us taking credit for positive events or outcomes, but blaming outside factors for negative events.
Some biases are also more likely than others to RSVP to your performance review than others, like the contrast effect. Because we have difficulty with absolute judgments, we can only consider something one way if we have the opposite in front of us.
To your manager, your coworkers serve as anchors, and you're rated against them. This can make all the difference between you being an MVP or getting placed on an improvement plan.
The distance bias may creep up on you, making recent events seem more important than ones in the past. If unacknowledged, it can lead to an unfair review process from your manager, where what you did in the past month outweighs everything else in your quarter.
And since I mentioned managers, you should also be aware of the liking bias. The more we like someone, the more inclined we are to help them, be around them, and use their services. Research says we count people as pleasant if:
- They are outwardly attractive.
- They are similar to us in terms of origin, personality, or interests.
- They like us.
Since amiability works better than anything else, you can try and use it in your next 1:1 or performance review.
Getting on more familiar terms with your boss can also help you bypass the authority bias, which is the tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of a powerful figure, regardless of its content, and be more influenced by it.
You can easily see this play out at work: your manager has a questionable take of things, but you don't challenge it since they must know best. But that's not always the case since authority does not equal expertise.
Cognitive errors are far too ingrained in our human nature for us to get rid of them completely. If you learn to recognize and address them, you can reduce their impact on your professional life and set yourself on a better path.
7. Present your achievements
Did you ever see a salesperson present their achievements? It’s a thing of beauty! Facts meet storytelling, and the audience is close to hypnotized. It’s what you could try for your next performance assessment because perception is reality.
The secret behind this isn’t all that secret: it’s not what you say, but how you say it. The French say C’est le ton quit fait la musique, and psychologists label this as framing.
It’s in our nature to react differently to identical situations, depending on how they are presented.
For example, if you had 10 projects to handle and managed to do 7 of them, you got a 70% completion rate. In your performance appraisal, lead the way with this figure. It wouldn’t be the same if you opened with your 30% rate of missing targets.
For your next managerial meeting:
- Show how you played your strengths
- Highlight the areas you worked on to improve and bring your results into discussion
- Help visualize your results with graphs
- Compare your latest achievements to your previous quarters
- Set your stage for making critical decisions backed by data
You need to remember that everything you say has elements of framing to it, so use it to your advantage. Always lead with the positives.
8. Ask about the development of the business
If you ask your manager where the business is heading, it shows you can think about the big picture and where you fit in it. But it also creates an opportunity for you to align your goals.
Understanding what your company is trying to achieve can imbue you with a sense of purpose and make you more efficient. And thinking of your job in this bigger context sheds light on why your tasks serve a critical role.
What’s more, such an approach clarifies your role in the company and lets you play to your strengths.
9. Leave your performance appraisal meeting with new goals
Your manager talked for what seemed like hours about your work, then gave you their verdict, and now the performance review is over. You breathe a sigh of relief and prepare to put it all behind you until next time.
If this is your current MO, you need to turn things around now.
The reality is that the past is the past, and you can’t do anything to change it. But what you can do is take your knowledge and apply it to something different going forward.
That’s why the final step of your performance review process is goal setting. Know your responsibilities, understand how you'll be evaluated, and what you need to bring to the table.
Before rushing to celebrate your survival of yet another performance review, write down the feedback you got. Integrate it into your OKRs, so that both you and your manager can work on track your self-improvement.
10. Challenge the status quo
Think about your workplace. Do performance reviews only happen once or twice a year, with month-long anxious planning leading to them? Do people stop doing actual work and instead focus on summarizing their past months, hoping they don’t leave out anything raise-worthy? No appreciation on the horizon?
Things don’t have to be this way!
Ditch this outdated approach, and ask for better performance reviews cycles! Having more frequent 1:1s or check-ins lets you gauge the path you’re on, make adjustments as you go, and transform the performance management system.
Shorten your feedback cycles, get the opportunity to nip problems in the bud, and keep them from becoming the reason you might get a bad review! Normalize saner performance evaluations, so you can put your energy into your work and goals instead of the review process.
Revamp your performance management cycle
Changing how performance reviews get done in your company may look daunting, but all it takes is willpower and some clicks.
That’s because we at Mirro have created your radically simple all-in-one performance management and review software.
With Mirro, you can shake things up from the get-go. Create timelines, mark your progress, ask for feedback, and establish check-in routines with your manager.
When you’re ready to decide what you need to focus on next, you can plan it and sync it all with Mirro. You and your manager will have full visibility over everything, taking any guesswork out of the equation.
Set yourself up for success, enjoy more clarity than ever before, and get ready for engaging conversations with your manager!
It’s your turn now
You’ve just learned a lot about performance reviews and how Mirro can help you make them better. Congrats!
It's now time to take these tips to heart. Opt for a modern version of appraisals with Mirro. You're bound to have a better outlook on your job and a stronger relationship with your manager.
You deserve all these, so go get them, tiger!
Content Marketer @ Mirro