Designing human-centered performance reviews

Two women sitting at a table and having a conversation

Why do I care so much about performance reviews?

My worst performance review caused me to leave my job within weeks. I went from years of surpassing expectations to being told I was not meeting them. Had my performance actually changed? No. The Big Consulting firm I was working for deliberately chose not to bid me on work and put me “on the bench” for a few months that year. During that time, I built a North American business analyst practice for the firm. But it didn’t count because I wasn’t “billable”. Of course not, because they chose to sit me out! They thought this review would motivate (manipulate?) me to accept being bid on projects as a project manager instead of the role I was hired for: UX subject matter expert. My company-assigned mentor was livid; her hands were completely tied by the rigidity of the evaluation process, and she was outvoted at the review table. There was nothing she could do to convince them otherwise; it was move up or get out. I chose out.

Most organizations have less rigid approaches to reviews and also use performance results to determine candidacy for career progression, but more often than not performance discussions are less than stellar experiences. More than once, my review was completed mere hours before the deadline by someone who regarded the process as an administrative burden. And naturally, in that context, I didn't get much meaningful feedback.

Taking a human-centered approach to reviews

After I left Big Consulting, I became a manager for the first time in an organization with a more traditional review approach and like most managers, I struggled to create measurable goals and provide meaningful feedback to my employees. I wasn't particularly good at reviews (or at managing, to be honest). Since then, I have really examined what differentiates a good review from a bad one, what kind of feedback I appreciate, and how I best receive negative feedback. Performance reviews became a design challenge for me. I have spent hours and hours designing a valuable and positive approach for conducting reviews that gets great feedback — and results — from my teams. 

Performance reviews are the end of a year-long conversation

A good performance review should be a look back on all the things you did last year, a discussion about areas of improvement for this year and new goals, and an opportunity to hear about all the ways you rock in your job. It is a celebration not a time for surprises. In fact, my performance review mantra is: Only a monster brings new feedback to a performance review. Sure they have stuff to work on, but we've been discussing that in real time all year so instead of being nervous, my team looks forward to reviews. Instead of being awkward and nerve-wracking, they look forward to me gushing about them to their faces.

I love making my staff blush when I tell them all the things they’ve done, how they have performed, and what their teammates value in them (we’ll get to that later). I love getting commitment from a team member that they still have work to do and seeing the motivated furrow in their brow as they commit to it. 

I love the trust that reviews establish: staff see their own progress and their contribution to our team’s success. And we are successful; we’re a high performing team that cares about each other and has a lot of fun. That’s the mood I strive for in performance reviews too.

I currently manage 2 teams with 10-12 direct reports. Here’s how I prepare a dozen performance plans and reviews:

Beginning of the year: setting individual expectations rooted in team goals 

At the beginning of the year, I hold one or more planning sessions with the team and set the work plan for the year. The work plan is documented and updated in real time throughout the year.

Everyone has their operational tasks documented in order to keep them in mind when we do the planning. Nothing worse than overburdening ourselves at the beginning of a quarter because we forgot about reporting or some other ongoing task.

We make a list of major projects for this year, leaving room for operational tasks, client-driven projects that will inevitably come up, and ad-hoc requests. I provide specific expectations of the type of support each role is expected to provide in different areas of team operations, and toward specific projects and goals. We align individual training plans with the planned work and discuss development areas, while including some room for personal growth and interest.

All of this is documented in their performance plans for the year, as well as planning documents for the team.

Year-round: Ongoing real-time feedback

I provide feedback in real-time throughout the year. If someone needs direction or correction, if I see patterns, if there are areas of development, I share this information either when I review their deliverables or at our monthly touchpoints. I keep lists of discussion topics per staff member, and track progress using specific examples. I want these discussions to be data-driven, not founded in personality conflict or subjective opinion about how I would do something.

If I see patterns of behaviour among a few people, I will bring these up in general terms at our daily stand-ups and offer advice or open a discussion with the team to come up with ways to address the behaviour. (Along the lines of: “I’ve noticed that some folks have been…”) This ensures that no one is made to feel singled out in the group environment but that as a team we can review how we want to work together and agree on approaches. This has been very effective at making people feel comfortable since most of the time, someone will admit to having made the same mistake in the past and will share how they addressed it.

Mid-year and year-end reviews: Discussing progress and reiterating feedback 

I prepare by reviewing our team workplan, all of their tickets and projects, and making a list of everything they have done. I walk them through this list and inevitably they will have forgotten just how much they worked on. I will remind them of their successes and the outcomes of their work. This is me gushing about them to them. We will discuss pros and cons of the various projects, and I will ask for their input on their level of interest in the projects they had, to note any possible growth opportunities or training opportunities. 

We will discuss the areas of development that we’ve highlighted throughout the year, and confirm whether they have improved and/or if they need to continue working. If additional development is required, we will discuss strategies including training, seeking support, taking on projects that will help to build those skills, etc. They will commit to working on them and I will commit to supporting them as they do.

If I think someone is doing really well and exceeding their role, I will tell them so. This gives them the opportunity to decide if they want to pursue growth opportunities in the team or off the team. If we have the ability to promote them internally, I will set a plan to advocate for their promotion and set a timeline for when I think we can achieve it. And I do the hard HR paperwork. And I keep them updated throughout. This helps to keep high performers and growing performers motivated. They can see a career path on the team. This is really important for retention.

If someone thinks they are performing higher than their position, but I still see room for growth, we will review the job description and discuss how the areas of development we discussed are gaps they must fill to meet the requirements of their current role. I will reinforce how pursuing the training we discussed and actively working on those areas will help to meet my performance expectations of the position. While this conversation can be difficult, I use data from their projects to explain why their performance on past work did not meet expectations and why they still have areas of development. I also explain why these are important for the role, what level they are working at vs where they should be, etc. These end with the employee agreeing to work on specific skills, and tactics to integrate that growth into their tasks and projects.

I offer reviews to newbies and students as well, preparing unofficial reviews to walk them through the process and give them feedback based on the short amount of time they have been with the team. This gives them the ability to participate in the review process along the rest of the team, and includes them in the peer boasting exercise (see next section).

Peer boasting: Hearing what their colleagues value in them

I devised a team building exercise where every team member filled out a short questionnaire about what makes every other team member awesome and an important contributor to the team. I compile the anonymous responses into a nicely formatted doc and read them their feedback at their review. It's always nice to see people blush at being gushed over by their peers. This is one of my favourite parts of being a manager.

There has been a great deal of interest on Twitter about these. Here are the question sets I have used for the last 3 years:

Year 1:

Intro: Help me complete this year's performance reviews by boasting about your colleagues! Tell me why they are so awesome and what they bring to the team. This feedback will be shared anonymously with your colleague.

For each question, provide a specific example illustrating the response. 

  1. What is one strength that they bring to our team? 
  2. How do they contribute to our team’s success? 
  3. What task or project would you like to work on with them this year. Why? 
  4. List one thing you would like them to teach the team.

Year 2:

I got a little fancier and put together a Google form that everyone could fill out, and which put all the responses into a spreadsheet for me. And due to the pandemic, I decided to have a little more fun with the questions while still collecting meaningful boasts. 

  1. What do you value most in them as a team member? 
  2. If you could wake up tomorrow and possess one of their skills, traits or qualities, what would it be and why? 
  3. What have they taught you or what have you learned from working with them? 
  4. You are building a space exploration dream team. What role would you assign them on your crew and why?

Year 3:

I had great feedback from this Year 2, so for year 3, I went for fun again. 

  1. What do you value most in them as a team member? 
  2. You always turn to them for... 
  3.  What's a superpower that they might not recognize in themselves? 
  4.  Given that superpower, what would be their superhero name and tag line? :)
And the template was light-hearted (I made it in Canva):

Human-centered performance reviews: year-round effort and creativity

If you're truly a collaborative manager, then feedback should be happening all the time, in real time. And if you're doing that, then performance reviews should be a celebration of things accomplished, not an intimidating session where employees fear the feedback they will hear for the first time. I've been made to feel incredibly small in performance reviews for jobs that I knew I was rocking. But my favourite reviews were the ones focused on my accomplishments, and just acknowledged areas of improvement (instead of focusing on the negative and barely mentioning the positive).

Hosting a positive discussion even when there is room for improvement makes a big difference in how a person feels when they enter and exit their review. If someone feels valued and feels that their strengths and weaknesses are being fairly assessed, they will bring positive energy to work with them every day. And isn't that the goal?