The skills of performance review

Mar 26 2003 by Print This Article

John has just had his performance appraisal.

"I had one of the best in the company" he says smugly.

John has just had his performance appraisal.


John has just had his performance appraisal.

"It’s easy. When you fill in the self-appraisal bit you just rank yourself at the top end in everything – just about. If Martin [his manger] says anything just disagree. He always backs down."

Phil is about to run into his busiest time of the year.

"Next week I have to sit down and write objectives for my team for next year. Then review their performance and write up the reports. There are twenty of them. It takes forever."

"What happens if they don’t agree?"

"Oh that never happens. And if it did it wouldn’t make any difference. These are the things that are important to the business. I’m just telling them like it is."

Performance management is well established in most companies and yet ‘doing it’ is surprisingly unpopular with managers and employees alike. Managers say it’s hard work and bureaucratic. Employees say ‘it’s a pain’ and ‘a waste of time’.

To manage performance effectively you must be able to communicate. Done well, the exercise builds confidence, renews enthusiasm and generates trust. Done poorly, it de-motivates and destroys.

HR professionals must ensure that they possess the necessary communication skills to undertake performance appraisals as well as ensuring that they are able to train and develop line mangers to do the same for the performance appraisals of their own direct reports.

Empowering not dreaded

The key skills required for performance management are rather obvious, and for that reason generally underrated and underdeveloped.

  • Understanding others
  • Asking questions
  • Listening
  • Giving feedback

Some managers will possess and use these skills naturally, just as some people are naturally better athletes than others. But with practice and training even the least active of us can learn the necessary skills and improve performance.

Understanding others

To the receiver this is often the most easily recognised skill. We have all felt the empathy of a sensitive teacher or friend and been struck by it’s absence in a boss. Ask Phil’s team about his management style and they’ll tell you that they rarely feel praised (or feel other people are praised), rewarded or recognised.

We are not talking about managers going all mushy, taking on another’s emotions and trying to please everyone. That would make decisions impossible, damage credibility and result in the kind of trouble Martin gets into with employees like James. The key skill here is to recognise employees feelings and take that information into the decision making on performance.

Asking questions

I hear – I forget

I see – I remember

I do – I understand’ Confucius

A review is an opportunity to raise awareness about performance, both good and not so good, so that that performance can be improved and/ or changed in the future. The structure of most reviews means that learning by ‘doing’ isn’t practical so the skilled use of questioning is our best alternative to aid the learning process.

Telling is a great way of passing on information but is not as effective at generating commitment and can even generate resistance. The best reviews happen when a manager moves from a model of ‘I talk – you listen’ to ‘I ask – I listen – we discuss’

Asking a question automatically causes us to look for an answer. By posing a question a manager shifts the focus of the conversation and draws the receiver’s attention to something they may not have been consciously aware.

Specific questions (i.e. closed or leading) force the receiver to come up the answer the questioner is looking for, leaving little choice. Asking closed questions saves people from having to think. In performance review this is the manager as ‘expert’ – font of all knowledge- but may leave the receiver feeling manipulated. Using open and/ or clean questions the receiver has to find and answer for himself or herself. By finding the answer themselves people become more resourceful, confident and committed.


To be listened to, really listened to is a powerful and empowering experience. People get more confident when they are listened to; they feel safer, more secure, valued. Most people don’t listen at a very deep level. Day to day pre-occupations get in the way and focus on what is said, or more likely on what they believe is said. Deep listening is focusing not just on what is said but what is felt and done, and in the hidden meanings of language and behaviour.

Giving feedback

The cornerstone of most reviews, effective feedback:

  • Engages the receivers thinking
  • Generates ownership
  • Uses descriptive not judgmental language (and avoids defensiveness in the receiver)
  • Covers both the result as well as the action/process
  • Enables the performer to do something
  • Works for the performer not the giver
  • Builds self-esteem
  • Is specific

Generating high quality relevant feedback from within the individual is the key to learning and improvement in a performance review. The worst feedback is personal and judgemental, whether 3600 or not. There are 4 levels of feedback:

1. Unspecified Criticism

E.g. “You’re useless”

As feedback it contains nothing helpful and its impact is on self-esteem and confidence. It is likely to make future performance even worse.

2 Judgmental

E.g. “This work is useless”

Directed at the work not the person it also damages the performance self-esteem, though less badly. Provides no information on which the receiver can act to correct it.

3 Information

E.g. “The content of your work was clear, but the layout and presentation were too complicated for its target readership”

Avoids criticism and provides some information on which to act but in insufficient detail and without ownership.

4 Ownership

E.g. “How do you feel about the work?”

Creates ownership but may lead to a non-committal response or value judgement “its ok” or “fine”. It’s useful as an opener but needs to be followed with specific questions

E.g. “What is the purpose of the work?”

“To what extent does it meet its objectives?”

“What other points need to be emphasised?”

Detailed questioning raises awareness and enables self-evaluation so that he/she takes responsibility for performance and the assessment of it.

The emphasis so far has been on the skills of performance review. Of course, for a truly empowering review, these skills need to be supported by the process and paperwork. Rating is one of the more difficult aspects to reconcile. In our numbers obsessed management rating is perfectly logical, but it is the feeling of being judged (and not making the grade) that can be so destructive.

One HR Director has recently decided to do away with rating in his company’s appraisals. ‘It’s so destructive, and I have other ways of incentivising people.’ As a result reviews have become a much more open and productive discussion of performance and development.

Poor performance

"How do I deal with poor performance?" is the most frequently asked question in any performance management development session. The standard response is that ‘poor performance should be dealt with at the time’. It is true that there shouldn’t be any surprises at review, but this is not always possible, particularly if you are using 360o feedback (not everyone has your feedback standards).

Using the skills described above, the first step is to give the poor performer your full attention and be prepared to listen at a deep level. Set out the issue clearly and briefly, no sugar coating or padding. Give a specific example and your feelings (not what you think the answer is) and a specific open question about the issue. Then listen and ask clarifying questions. Close with ‘what are you going to do?’

Managers skilled in this approach hold off their own opinion, so that when it is given it is given in context. Dig for full understanding, it is the only way that the receiver will take ownership.

Receiving feedback

To learn and grow all employees need the ability to understand what managers, colleagues and customers are telling us about ourselves. Yet receiving feedback is possibly one of the most difficult skills to master because it can seem like a personal attack. Too often our immediate reaction is to defend, explain, rationalise and criticism (“they don’t understand” “ I wouldn’t have said that anyway”). We anticipate feed back as criticism or being ‘found out’ and so dread it, feel hurt, get angry, and ignore what we can learn to improve performance.

To get the most from your feedback:

  • Be curious
  • Ask for it
  • Ask for clarification
  • Resist the impulse to explain and beware of “yes but…”
  • Remember another persons view/ perception is valid even if you don’t agree with it
  • Recognise the limits of your own perceptions and self-image
  • Try to understand the person giving feedback

Finding the time

All this may seem time consuming. The ‘expert’ manager who knows all the answers may feel it’s much quicker to just tell it like it is. However the concepts and techniques discussed here are easy to learn and refresh, providing an alternative approach when your managers don’t have all the answers, or when commitment and motivation are important to performance.