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Crafting Effective Performance Review Comments: A Guide

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Sitting across from your employee during a performance review will make you feel insecure. The meeting is scheduled, but you're struggling to remember specific examples of the employee's performance because you have so many tasks and pressing matters to attend to at work. You consider whether to make a negative comment and decide to summarize it briefly.

These meetings happen a few times a year, and you wonder if they even produce any tangible results.

At the end of the conversation, you realize that you could have communicated the employee's strengths and opportunities for improvement even better. You really want to support him in his development, but you haven't had the opportunity to give him concrete suggestions and actionable insights.

The employee, on the other hand, is not clear about what he should do in the future. He is disappointed that some of his important milestones and efforts have been missed. They are unsure what to make of the vague or unclear performance review comments and begin to feel insecure about their performance.

The disappointment can gradually lead to frustration as the employee does not receive the guidance to excel in their role. They then no longer feel valued, are demotivated and may even wonder whether they should even put in the effort anymore.

However, these feelings and results are not specific to a single company, employee or leader. According to a Gallup study, only 14% of employees believe their performance reviews inspire them to improve. Furthermore, managers tend to avoid negative feedback while employees, on the other hand, crave negative feedback. A survey conducted by leadership consulting firm Zenger Folkman found that 94% of employees want to receive negative feedback to improve their performance, provided the feedback is given in an appropriate manner. This data definitely leads us to the following question.

Why do most performance review comments not result in performance improvement?

Performance appraisal comments should be directed at the task rather than the person. However, companies should remember that employees are much more than just their work. Every person is disappointed when their hard work goes unnoticed and they don't find opportunities to be successful.

The top 5 reasons why most performance review comments are ineffective are explained below:

  1. Sometimes it's due to the company's performance practices. Another Gallup study found that 4 out of 5 workers believe their company's performance practices don't motivate them.

    If you are in an environment where managers are too busy hitting quarterly targets and their "feedback" system is just them announcing compensation, you are in a culture that encourages under-performance.
  2. Lack of regular feedback. The same study also found that almost half of employees receive feedback from their managers only a few times or even less often. Without regular feedback, the manager does not have enough specific information to make comments.
  3. Neither the manager nor the employee knows how to have more meaningful conversations. How often do you have conversations with your employees that leave them feeling encouraged and committed to improving their performance? Ineffective performance comments are more vague, general, and lacking context.

    Employees, on the other hand, are unsure how to have a meaningful conversation about their career goals. However, this challenge can be largely overcome by regularly creating a meaningful self-assessment.
  4. Inadequate training. Adobe human resources director Donna Morris suggests that managers need to be trained to give action-oriented feedback. This training includes setting and measuring goals, conducting review meetings, and providing accurate feedback.
  5. No clear performance standards. As a manager, you've most likely heard employees say, "I didn't know I was supposed to do it that way! I didn't know you weren't expecting that."

    The only way to avoid such frustration is to work with the employee to set performance standards. Once these are established, performance review comments are much more effective.

    While these are the most common reasons, there are also specific challenges that leaders face. Let's examine these in detail.

What challenges do managers face when it comes to providing effective performance comments? How can you overcome them?

As a manager, you face several challenges when formulating performance comments. This includes obstacles that are beyond your control. Below are the challenges you may face and what you can do to overcome them.

1.You don't have a conversation at the beginning of the year.

When setting performance goals, you should have an open conversation with your employees. Misalignments can occur because both parties unintentionally interpret the goals differently. Be sure to coordinate expectations early on.

2.You simply copy the company's goals into the employee's performance management plan.

Break down the company's goals into actionable and measurable goals. This ensures that the comments made are relevant, specific, measurable and aligned. Don’t forget to set and define goals together with the employee.

3.You don't adjust or update goals.

You should be aware that goals that were once relevant may now be less meaningful and outdated. They do not accurately reflect the employee's achievements and responsibilities. Maintain ongoing communication with your employees and adjust goals if necessary.

4.You are not clear about what you intend and want to achieve with the performance appraisal.

The purpose and goal of this conversation could be feedback, development, goal adjustment, performance improvement or recognition. Set clear goals and formulate your comment.

5.You don't take enough time to prepare for the interview.

This lack of preparation means you miss the opportunity to provide concrete examples and opportunities for improvement. However, this problem can be addressed by taking the time to thoroughly review performance notes, achievements, and records.

6.You don't compile notes or document employee performance.

You can only prepare for the interview if you have accurate records of the employee's progress and concrete examples of their performance. Be diligent and take notes, capture:

  1. Skills and behaviors that work and don't work
  2. Areas for improvement
  3. Remarkable achievements
  4. Challenges overcome
  5. New skills and behaviors developed over time
  6. Progress and growth

Employees should also actively participate in note-taking to ensure that no important information is missed.

7.You are unwilling to give feedback.

A new Harris Poll Interact survey shows that 69% of leaders are unwilling to communicate with their employees and give them direct feedback.

As described in the book "Daring Greatly" by Brene Brown, you will be ready to give feedback by thinking about 10 necessary questions. She recommends using this as a checklist.

  1. I am willing to sit next to you instead of sitting across from you.
  2. I'm willing to put the problem in front of us instead of putting it between us (or putting it on you)
  3. I am willing to listen, ask questions and accept that I may not fully understand the problem.
  4. I want to acknowledge what you do well rather than pick apart your mistakes
  5. I recognize your strengths and how you can use them to overcome your challenges
  6. I can hold you accountable without shaming or reprimanding you
  7. I'm ready to do my part
  8. I can sincerely thank you for your efforts instead of criticizing you for your mistakes
  9. I can talk about how solving these challenges will lead to your growth and opportunities
  10. I can model the vulnerability and openness I expect from you.

8.You find it difficult to be honest and specific.

Don't hold back on uncomfortable conversations as this will deprive employees of valuable insights and could hinder their development. As the above study showed, 94% of employees crave negative feedback when it is expressed appropriately.

9.There are not enough development opportunities in your company.

While this outcome is not your fault, it is still challenging. You may need to think creatively and explore other options, both for yourself and your team members. Some common options are:

  • Knowledge sharing sessions
  • Online learning platforms and books

Finally, reach out to HR and emphasize the importance of investing in employee development.

10.Is there a follow-up after the performance review?

Performance reviews have a lasting impact on employee job satisfaction and engagement. Without adequate follow-up, the insights provided by the performance appraisal may not lead to changes in performance or behavior. Have follow-up conversations and offer additional support and resources.

Now that we've examined what not to do when submitting or writing performance comments, let's get into the actual craft.

A 3-Step Model for More Effective Performance Review Comments

As you prepare to give performance review comments to your employees, take a moment to remember a time when you received feedback that was motivating and encouraging. What particularly highlighted this feedback? And how can you incorporate these elements into your own performance comments?

Whether you remember or not, this easy-to-follow model will benefit you greatly. It consists of three main steps in which you collect relevant information, learn how to structure and phrase effectively, and write the actual performance review comments.

1.Identify the key areas of assessment

Before you make the actual comment, list the key areas you want to evaluate. This can be anything from attendance to actual performance. Avoid basing the performance appraisal solely on individual achievements. A single key area is not enough to assess an employee's performance and behavior.

For example, a company called Men's Wearhouse fired its top-performing salesperson. As a result, the store's sales increased by 30%. And why? Because the top performing employee had dominated a huge number of sales in the store. The company would have encouraged such behavior if it had only evaluated and taken into account his performance and behavior. This example shows that a holistic assessment is necessary.

Here are some key areas you need to consider:

  1. Presence
  2. Creativity and innovation
  3. Communication
  4. Collaboration and teamwork
  5. Problem solving ability
  6. Learning ability
  7. Time management and multitasking
  8. Skills, abilities, achievements

Don't forget to consider how other team members would rate the employee in these areas. You can rate them on a scale of 1 to 5 or choose other performance appraisal methods.

2.Apply context and measures

Once you have gathered relevant information and data about the employee, you can begin structuring the performance comment effectively. Add context and positivity to the data. There are two highly recognized frameworks that you can use individually or in combination.

The SBI-I™ model (Situation-Behavior-Effect-Intention)

This is a simple framework developed by the Center for Creative Leadership for providing feedback or performance comments.

In this context, you:

  • Discuss the when and where of the situation. This helps put the comment in context and provide specific examples.
  • Describe the specific behaviors you want to target. Do not rely on hearsay or make assumptions about the employee's behavior, only state what you have directly observed.
  • Explain how the employee's actions and behavior affected you, his teammates, and his performance.
  • Encourage the employee to communicate the intent behind their behavior and actions. This ensures that communication goes both ways.

You can use this framework to structure both positive and negative performance review comments.

The start-stop continuation frame

Some employees aren't great at receiving feedback. Be sure to maintain a positive tone when structuring your performance comments. This framework is divided into three short sections. You let the employee know:

  • Three things he hasn't done yet but should start doing. This can be anything that you listed as key areas for assessment in the first step of this model.
  • Three things you should stop doing.
  • Things that are valuable and good and should be kept.

3.Write effective performance review comments

After structuring your comment, remember to provide a holistic summary of the employee's performance. Address strengths, development opportunities, areas for improvement, and career goals. Regardless of whether the feedback is positive or negative, you should write the comment in a positive tone. There are two important points to consider for overall effectiveness:

Some examples of effective performance review comments

Below are examples of what performance comments look like when using the SBI-I model and the start-stop continuity framework.

  1. Not effective: "You're never on time, and everyone says you're always late. You have to be on time!"

    Effective: "Your attendance has been a problem lately. In the last week, you have been late three times without notice. This has affected the team's workflow and results. I request you to let me know your problems and solve the problem "On the positive side, I greatly appreciate your commitment to timely and quality work! Please continue to do so and keep me and others involved informed of anything that may impact your schedule."
  2. Not effective: "Allen works very well with his team and has excellent teamwork skills."

    Effective: "Allen has a significant impact on the team's performance. In two cases where the team faced challenges on projects, he stepped up and supported them with creative ideas. This boosted the team's morale during difficult times. Going forward, I recommend that he document his contributions to ensure transparency and better coordination."
  3. Ineffective: "I noticed that you are making an effort to learn new skills and I appreciate your commitment. Keep it up!"

    Effective: "I have observed your active engagement in various online platforms and knowledge sharing sessions. It is inspiring to see how you involve and encourage others to do the same. I have no doubt that your efforts to develop new skills develop, pay off, and I can already see how the quality of your work has improved. Keep up the good work and stay committed to your self-improvement!"

Start writing effective performance comments with IceHrm

IceHrm's Performance Management System offers a range of tools to revolutionize the way you give feedback or make performance comments. Use these tools to raise the potential of your employees to a new level. IceHrm supports managers and employees with features such as:

  1. SMART goal setting
  2. Productive one-on-one meetings
  3. Continuous feedback
  4. 360 degree feedback
  5. Performance reporting and analysis, and much more.

Don't let your employees downIt's time to take action. The next time you sit across from your employee during a performance review, make sure you've highlighted their strengths, areas for improvement, and career path. Although you can't control the employee's reaction, you still have control over how effective your performance review comments are.

Transform your performance reviews with actionable insights. Craft feedback that inspires growth and development. Elevate your team's potential with IceHrm.

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