The delivery of employee performance reviews is one of the most common objects of procrastination among managers. Even in organizations that promote clear timelines and expectations for leaders, delayed feedback is not only frequent but it often creates collateral damage that is hard to see but that nonetheless affects future employee engagement and contribution.
This is because performance reviews are tied in to “critical moments” in an employee’s experience. These interactions have the potential to shift the trajectory of individuals' working lives. A successful review can set the tone for a positive outlook on work whereby employees -- validated for the quality of their ongoing performance and contribution -- can engage deeply with the organization and deliver their best effort. Reviews that go sideways can leave employees feeling wounded, resentful and willing to do only the minimum until something better comes along.
If you have delayed or postponed an employee review, it's not too late to get things back on track and make the most of this critical moment. To avoid compounding issues that may already be accumulating, here are three strategies for you to tackle overdue performance reviews and do them well.
1. Simplify your game plan. Managers often delay feedback because they are unclear about how to start. To get moving, simplify your game plan and stick with that course of action. Every game plan begins with an overall objective and the goal of a performance review is to understand an employee's challenges in completing good work. Remove obstacles and support the staffer's efforts to achieve the identified performance outcome and confirm that his or her skills and contributions are aligned with the team’s highest priorities.
With this core objective in mind, your game plan should also address the following:
a. Establish a supportive, trust-based relationship that reinforces “the mutual agenda” whereby an individual's focus and skill are aligned with the organization's goals.
b. Provide clear, specific feedback to the employee about the things he or she is doing well and areas requiring further improvement;
c. Communicate directly and honestly about what's expected, as well as the consequences of failure to deliver on expectations.
d. Document relevant expectations and areas of accountability in objective, clear writing.
2. Just make the time. The excuse of “not having enough time” is a worn-out defense that says more about a manager’s priorities than the volume of his or her workload. What managers fail to realize is that employees quietly interpret unspoken reasons and draw their own conclusions about the possible implications. Right or wrong, certain comments might prompt employees to make assumptions.
For example, “I just don’t have the time to do your review; remind me when things settle down" could lead to this translation: "You just don’t matter that much and now it is your responsibility to follow up."
“Why don’t you go ahead and write it up, then we’ll sit down and discuss it” could be translated as: "I’m not engaged enough to know what you're really doing and I won’t take the time to figure it out."
These translations are not extreme. When an employee is aware of an overdue performance review, there is often heightened sensitivity and tension as the staffer intensifies a search for clues about his or her status. When managers delay or avoid the topic, the unrest escalates as the employee is left to rely on his or her perceptive filters to interpret what the manager may be thinking.
3. Pull no punches. With a solid game plan and firm time commitment, the final step is to establish a level of candor and truth telling so an honest and productive exchange can result via the performance review process. In many cases, managers pull their punches because they don’t want to deliver something that would lead to undesirable scenarios.
This is understandable because some feedback can be really hard to deliver. Speaking the truth, however, does not require a manager to deliver a jab. And while glossing over the tough stuff may seem like the easier path in the short term, it creates a barrier to sharing the honest feedback that employees need (and usually want) to hear. To initiate a higher level of transparent communication, managers can take the following steps:
a. Refer directly to concrete behaviors and outcomes, without personalized judgment.
b. Give equal weight to moments of positive performance that occurred early in the year, as well as recently.
c. Balance highs and lows by delivering feedback on subtler aspects of performance, not just the glaring topics.
d. Acknowledge accomplishments by describing the importance and impact they have.
e. Provide challenge areas for an employee to improve upon and give context about why they matter.
f. Make the feedback go both ways by seeking the employee’s perspective on his or her performance.
Following these three strategies will produce an open exchange of feedback that can immediately end the cycle of frustration and negative assumptions about why the review was delayed. By returning the employee to the center of attention and recognizing performance successes and gaps, managers can leverage a vital platform for accelerating individual, team and organizational performance.