Having an Effective Performance Review Discussion

By
Lin Grensing-Pophal
|
November 10, 2020

While many consider them to be a necessary evil of the business world, performance reviews can serve a very effective and productive role in helping organizations be successful. Unfortunately, not all performance reviews are handled the same and not all are designed to drive better performance.

It’s not for a lack of trying or a lack of caring.

Managers and supervisors obviously want their staff members to be successful in achieving their goals so the department and that organization can achieve theirs. They want to serve a role as a positive catalyst in helping employees grow and develop. The performance review—and the performance review discussion, in particular—can help them do just that. But there are some important steps to take and best practices to follow to ensure that the outcome is a good one for the employee, the manager and the organization. Here are X steps for having an effective performance review discussion—some that take place outside of the actual performance discussion meeting.

1. Establish and Agree to Organizationally Aligned Goals

The first step in performance review is establishing goals. These goals will provide the foundation for how employee performance will be evaluated. Ideally, employee goals will support department goals which support division goals which support organizational goals. That provides alignment between the organization’s strategic priorities and the work of every employee on the team.

When discussing goals, it’s important to ensure that they are specific—how will both you and your employee know whether or not they have achieved the goal? For instance: “improve marketing efforts” is not stated in a way that would be measurable and could cause frustration on both sides. “Increase response rates to digital ads by 15% during the next six months” would be a measurable target.

2. Provide Feedback on an Ongoing Basis

Every manager’s overriding goal when it comes to the performance review discussion should be “no surprises.” Most formal performance review discussions are held on an annual basis. But no manager should wait a year, or even a few months or weeks to give employees real-time feedback. Everything discussed at the annual review should have already been discussed with employees at some point during the year. They should know what’s coming. 

3. Be Specific

Neither of these statements is helpful:

  • “You’re doing a great job!”
  • “You’re doing poor work.”

Neither provides the employee with any specific information about exactly what it is they’re doing well or poorly, or why their performance is exceeding or failing to meet expectations. The initial goals you established with employees should be used as the starting point for discussion. That discussion should then include examples of how the employee did, or didn’t, meet expectations. 

4. Offer Resources and Support

Managers play an important role of providing resources and removing barriers to help employees meet their goals and objectives. Every performance discussion should include a discussion of the tools, resources and support employees need to do their jobs effectively and achieve their goals. What are the barriers that may be keeping them from achieving their goals? What additional support or resources could help?

5. Schedule Enough Time to Meet in a Quiet, Uninterrupted Space

While it may seem that offering to hold the performance review over lunch or coffee would be a nice, more casual approach, opt instead for a private discussion where you will be uninterrupted. And make sure to schedule enough time—generally an hour but if you know, in advance, that there are several issues that will need to be discussed, or anticipate a reaction from the employee that would require more time, make the time.

6. Let the Employee Talk First

As we’ve already discussed, employees should have a good idea of how they’re doing by the time they come to the performance review meeting. Since that’s the case, give them the opportunity to start the discussion by asking them to provide a recap of the year and the things they’ve done well, the goals they’ve met or exceeded and areas where they may need additional time or support. Chances are they will bring up most, if not all, of the issues you planned to address. You’re then in a position of responding to rather than bringing up issues that may require some type of constructive intervention.

7. Listen!

It’s such an important management skill, but one that is often not well-honed. Listening. Make sure you are listening actively and attentively to the employee you’re meeting with. Be alert to their body language. Ask questions of clarification is you need to. But avoid the tendency to jump into the discussion with your own thoughts.  

This is also a great time for you to ask the employee for feedback about your own performance. What have you done that has helped them achieve their goals? In what ways might you have been a barrier? What could you improve to provide greater support?


The performance review is a critical two-way connection between employees and managers—hopefully, not the only one you have each year but one that helps to pull together all of the wins, missteps, course corrections and opportunities for improvement that can help your employees learn, grow and develop.

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