Are Performance Reviews Eroding Your Team’s Engagement?

Performance Reviews Employee Engagement

More and more leaders about rightfully questioning the effectiveness of the traditional performance review process.

We have all experienced this annual / semi-annual feedback session delivered by your organization for the purpose of providing “feedback” and to review your “performance”.

In this article, we will discuss how the performance review while an often mandated process is ineffective when it is not combined with ongoing coaching conversations.  We will get back to coaching conversations in just a minute.  Let’s start with Performance Reviews.

The Ineffectiveness of Traditional Performance Reviews – The data

Let’s face it. We are all humans with individual sensitivities.  I recently spoke to an amazing leader recently and asked a  pointed question, “Do you find performance reviews productive”.  They said “I never have.  It is a one-sided process that is based almost exclusively on someone’s opinion of my performance over a year.”

Now, ask yourself the same question.  I believe you may have a similar response.

The Data:  According to Gallup only “14% of employees strongly agree that their performance reviews inspire them to improve”.

Ben Wigert and Jim Harter from Gallup in their report Reengineering Performance Management 2017 wrote:

Traditional approaches to performance feedback have been notoriously characterized as a time to discuss everything an employee has done wrong and define what needs to be fixed. A qualitative study by Bouskila-Yam & Kluger (2011) illustrates some descriptions employees have given of performance feedback, such as “Feedback equals criticism,” “It was devastating” and “The feedback meeting is a conflict meeting.” Moreover, performance management research consistently demonstrates that overly focusing on mistakes and personal shortcomings to the point that feedback feels primarily negative tends to cause performance feedback to feel unfair, create defensiveness and inhibit performance improvement.

What is the problem with Performance Reviews?

In my experience, most managers are very well intentioned and want to help their teams improve their performance.  Many leaders have expressed their frustration over being boxed into a formal performance review system.  It doesn’t allow them to apply their interpersonal skills or let their inner coach out.

From my perspective, there is a three-fold issue with Performance Reviews:

  1. The Message – Traditional Performance Appraisals / Reviews are a prescribed group of organizationally mandated categories / questions / comments and structured to provide one-sided feedback and review performance. Managers have some latitude, but the formalization and rigidity of the message can render Performance Reviews ineffective and often inauthentic.  Some companies have recently added self reviews to encourage a two way discussion but in most cases they are overshadowed by the manager’s review / criticism.  Self reviews, if not treated as an equal component of the review, will be counterproductive and add to the perception of a one-way conversation.  Conversely, Coaching Conversations are highly individualized, focused and two way.
  2. The Timing – Performance Reviews are often held at a time that is mandated by the manager and in a window (review season) prescribed by the organization.  Managers are often forced to book multiple review meetings in one day which can cause the meetings to lose effectiveness.  Also, issues are often weeks or months old if an organization relies on performance reviews as their sole source of performance feedback.  As we discuss later, coaching conversations are timely and highly individualized for each team member.
  3. The Forum–Performance Appraisals are built as a contractual performance tool that is perceived as one sided versus a two-way conversation designed for collaborative improvement.  They are often held in a highly formalized setting that can be intimidating and counter-productive to a free flow of information.  As discussed above, these meetings often take on a conveyor belt feel that is noticed or openly discussed by your team.  On the other hand, coaching conversations take place continuously and the individual’ and team’s comfort are taken into account.  Think of it as a fire side chat versus a formal board room meeting.

You maybe asking at this point, “what are coaching conversations and how do I incorporate them into my leadership strategy? 

In any organization, you must communicate required improvements to your team members and they must to be accountable to these improvements for the organization to grow and evolve.    Remember:  It is not WHAT you say but HOW and WHEN you say it.  The remainder of the article will focus on the effectiveness of implementing Coaching Conversations as a key component of your employee engagement strategy.

Shifting to Coaching Conversations

Performance reviews are held formally once or twice a year in “review season”.

Coaching Conversations are:

o   Held as needed and immediately address issues or challenges with the sole purpose to find resolution, return to normal course of business and drive future continuous improvement

o  Timely, unbiased, unemotional, empathetic, collaborative.  They are by design a two-way dialogue that is designed to be comfortable and confidential for the team member.

o   The best method for obtaining and delivering feedback throughout the year, even when Performance Appraisals are required,

o   Used as a critical part of an effective people management strategy.

NOTE: Coaching conversations do come with some risk. As they are a collaborative two-way conversation, the manager holds the additional responsibility to ensure the conversation remains productive and effective.

5 effective questions to ask yourself ahead of a coaching conversation

  1. Are my emotions in play? – It can be very challenging to put emotions aside, especially in the heat of the moment, particularly if you have been affected personally by the actions of your team member.
    • Time is the greatest counterweight to emotion.  Have you ever put someone on blast in an email in the heat of the moment and regretted it later?  Who hasn’t right?  If you find yourself about to deliver feedback or constructive criticism in the heat of the moment, do yourself a favour.  DON’T DO IT!  Instead, professionally book a time for a professional discussion when the situation cools down. This time frame will vary as the “cool down period” will be different for every leader. (see below)
    • Impact of Timing – Statements made in the heat of the moment can last days, weeks, months or even years and in extreme cases situations can not be repaired.  NOTE: very few situations remain emotionally charged after two to three days.  If it does, consult your manager or HR leader for additional guidance.  The situation will need to be addressed within 3-4 business days to retain the integrity of the continuous coaching process.  Explain the delay to the team member and be honest that it took a couple of days for the dust to settle.  The honesty will help the conversation.
    • Practice also helps counter emotions.  As you practice the conversation, watch for phrases like “I feel that you” or “I think that you”.  These tend to precede an emotional response.  These emotionally charged phrases  should be replaced with “can you walk me through your process……” or “if you had to do it again how would you…..” See the Questions versus statements section below.
  2. Are my biases in play? – Like emotion, bias is a reality in our personal and professional lives.  Whether situational or long held biases, they affect how we approach situations at work.  These “blind spots” even if subtle or tonal come out when we meet with team members.  Employees often tell us that “She or he always……”.  This is bias in play.  Self aware leaders understand and sideline their biases when meeting with team members.  If you are struggling to understand your biases, ask a trusted co-worker or friend.  Biases are obvious to those we trust. When building trust and credibility with team members, An unbiased conversation is one of the most powerful leadership tools we possess and will position you as a fair and an honest broker

o        Biases in play?:  Gallup has found that only 29% of employees strongly agree that the performance reviews they receive are fair, and 26% strongly agree they are accurate.

      3. What if the tables were turned? (Applying Empathy) – Using a well-known technique, known as the                                        empathetic approach, you take time to see the situation from your team member’s perspective.  Asking                             these two questions allows you to see coaching conversation from an alternative perspective: “how                                     would I want my manager to address this with me” and “given what I know about this team member, will                         my approach be effective”. The empathetic approach can take some practice.   A hint as you move to                                   coaching conversations:

o        Leverage trusted resources – Your manager, HR or other trusted leaders can be terrific assets while  testing your message.  You can use role play or a reverse perspective approach, to gain an understanding of the ‘other side of the table’.

   4. Am I asking questions or making statements?  This is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to coaching versus traditional Performance Reviews.  A sales trainer once gave a simple piece of advice that seems applicable here, “If you are speaking more than 25% of the time in a meeting, you won’t learn much…..”

o        Understanding Position – By asking probing questions and allowing the team members to speak more than half of the time, you will gain unique information about their unique position.  As you obtain new and information, you can adjust your messaging and ultimately develop a stronger more informed solution to the issue you are trying to address.

o        Ownership – Leaders know that the most sustainable way to affect change is for the participants to “own” what they are responsible for.  When you rely on making statements, offering criticism, providing one sided feedback, etc, you pre-empt ownership of an issue.  This approach often causes confusion and a misperception of your intent.   In the extreme, team members can perceive this one-sided criticism as a threat to their employment. The result is often disengagement from the process and a new retention risk is born.  Ownership on both sides will avoid this challenging situation that can prove destructive to your team.

o        Follow-up Effectiveness – You can easily picture the difference in effectiveness between these two statements:  1) “I appreciate you taking ownership of the issue we discussed several weeks ago.  I have noticed that the improvements that you suggested are working. Really great job!”  2) “I wanted to follow-up on our conversation when I asked for improvement in your work.  It looks like you followed my direction and made the requested improvements.”  How you follow up can be as important as to how you addressed the issue in the first place.

     5. What is my min / max outcome?  I have noticed a trait that successful leaders use when they are prepping for meetings with team members.  They employ a min / max strategy. It is a well known integrity-based negotiation strategy but also applies to Coaching Conversations.

o        What is Min / Max? –  When planning your next coaching session, ask yourself (and document) the answer to the following question:

              “What would be a minimum acceptable outcome AND what would be the maximum or best outcome for this meeting?”

Why employ a Min / Max strategy?

o        Retains FocusUnfortunately, we all lose focus in meetings.  Have you ever walked away from a meeting and were disappointed when results didn’t meet even your minimum expectations?  This often stems from a loss of focus on the original intent of the meeting.  Tip: If you are 50% through your coaching conversation and you have not addressed or achieved even your minimum meeting goals, stop, take a minute (or short break) and refocus.   This break will allow you to get back on track and the meeting will be much more beneficial and likely achieve the desired result.

o        It Relies On Strategy versus Tactics – Coaching conversations are often dynamic, effective and complex processes.  By changing or altering team feedback from a performance review model to continuous coaching conversations, you will quickly shift from tactics to a strategy based approach.   Don’t Forget:  Questions are always more effective than statements.  Coaching conversations are built on a strategy of asking questions, learning and collaborating on long term solutions. 

An Ongoing Process – Breaking coaching conversation into multiple meetings / conversations can overcome some common issues that are inherent in performance reviews.

  o   Mental Overload – Even though you are speaking less as a part of the coaching conversation, your questions will be planned, thoughtful and often more impactful for a team member.  The burden of ownership is shared with the employee in order to deliver solutions.   This focus can take a great deal more energy than traditional performance review processes used in the past.  Given the collaborative nature of the meeting, not all team members are able to make breakthroughs at the same speed.  The goal of coaching conversations is to build understanding and ownership of issues.  If you notice your team member is tuning out or shutting down, don’t judge their intention, they are likely trying to keep up but struggling to do so.  Tip:  Take a break or schedule a follow-up session to allow them to gather their thoughts. The break will be worth it when you resume as it allows a reset and is respectful of the overload that may be taking place.  Using this approach, most conversations will end well and achieve your desired results.

  o   Breakthroughs Not Evident– If you find yourself in a rare coaching conversation that is just not working, here are two possible reasons.  1) Your planning may missed the mark or 2) Your timing was off.  Either way, pushing through for the sake of completing the conversation will not yield the results.  At that point, explain the situation professionally and in a non-judgemental way, adjourn the meeting, and reschedule ASAP.  Leaving it unaddressed or unscheduled could be perceived as judgmental or unimportant. Although rare, this situation does happen I hope our suggestions provided will help you through it.

10 Simple Steps For Your First Coaching Conversation.

Performance Reviews

  1. Pick a situation that requires attention – Tip: Start with one that is not at crisis level.  You will need to practice on a few noncritical situations to get your process dialed in.
  2. Document the situation (from your perspective) in bullet points
  3. Ask yourself and address “are there emotions in play?”
  4. Ask yourself and address “are there bias at play?”
  5. Practice turning the tables (empathetic approach) and engage HR or other resources if required
  6. Develop your list of probing coaching questions
  7. Develop your min / max strategy or statement
  8. Schedule meeting with team member
  9. Lead meeting in a comfortable environment remembering the 75% / 25% communication rule
  10. Evaluate the meeting (document your successes and areas of future improvement)

REPEAT Steps 1-10

Given the pressures on today’s leaders, the transition from reliance on Annual Performance Reviews to continuous Coaching Conversations (or a combination of the two), will not always be easy.  It will often require a change in how many leaders currently manage their teams.  My promise to you is that the process will become much more natural and the engagement and performance results will speak for themselves!

Practice the Golden Rule for Coaching Conversations: Practice Practice Practice!

Remember a simple question when you start to lean back on the performance review as your sole source of employee feedback:

Constructive Criticism delivered in Performance Reviews is often perceived by employees as Destructive Criticism as proven by the extensive Gallup research on this issue.

Coaching Conversations professionally fix issues early, often, collaboratively and without judgement. This is a highly constructive way to drive improvement and productivity throughout the year within your organization.

I want to be clear, I am not advocating dumping your organization’s Performance Review process or software.  In many cases, it is an organizational mandate and one that most leaders could not cease even if they wanted to.  We advocate that those without a formal Performance Review system consider an alternative before making this sizeable investment. For those with a mandated Performance Review process, we strongly suggest supplementing a Coaching Conversation process as a part of your employee engagement strategy.  The addition of regular Coaching Conversations assures there are no unaddressed surprises are delivered during the Performance Review.  This avoids eroding or destroying your team’s engagement that you have worked hard throughout the year to cultivate.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us for a no cost obligation free coaching conversation consultation.  We are passionate about coaching conversations and are excited to help those make the shift. You will be glad you did. Please let us know about your success as you make the shift!

All the best!


Dean Hannon

Founder and Head Coach

DRIVE Engagement Training and Coaching

[email protected]