The Dreaded Performance Review

February 10, 2014

The-Performance-ReviewYou’ve begun to feel discomfort and anxiety over one or more dreaded performance reviews on your to-do list. What makes some performance reviews so difficult and what can we try to take some of the anxiety away?

Here’s a take on the five most challenging performance review scenarios.  The first two are the most obvious: 1) Performance that is not meeting expectations or 2) performance that is inconsistent. You walk into these meeting braced for emotional reactions—from withdrawal to anger to disbelief—and may walk out agreeing to disagree.

3) Performance that’s adequate, but comes with a price tag. The price tag might be: having a negative impact on the team, constantly challenging and resisting change, speaking or behaving inappropriately, forcing you to repeat instructions, point out and discuss recurring examples of lack of judgment, errors etc.— in other words, taking up sizable chunks of your time to retrain, explain, repeat—all of which seriously slows down your drive for results. These price tags make individuals difficult to lead.

4) High performers with high expectations that come from exceeding objectives, and/or managing increasing volumes of work. Many high performers trust that they will get the rewards and recognition they seek—if not this year, then next. But others may be impatient and frustrated regarding immediacy. They may be harbouring disappointments from the past.  They may have discovered they’re earning less than their peers. Their career goals may be tied to promotions and they’re confused not knowing what stands in the way. As their leader, you certainly don’t want to frustrate those who do whatever takes to deliver. The weight of this may cause you to dread what should be a positive review with your top talent.

5) Inflated sense of importance and/or entitlement. This is represented in a very small group of individuals who don’t really understand or accept how the system works; they create their own interpretation. They have a unique, enlarged view of themselves and the work they do. This dreaded performance scenario invites conflict, where you as the leader can find yourself on easily the defensive if you’re unable to stand your ground.

We can all agree that performance management and measurements have limitations and are open to interpretation. And while we’ve come a long way in making them more objective, much of the review process still occurs between-the-lines and is subjective.

For example, application and acceptance of the overall performance management system may vary from your boss to you to HR to your direct report, and with those differences come varying degrees of tension.

Ratings don’t help. High achievers aren’t happy with anything less than a top rating, especially when they can readily point to their accomplishments. Ratings alone can turn an otherwise positive review into one that can dissatisfy to top talent.

Performance measurement is steadily moving toward more objective standards, but unlike Grade ‘A’ Beef, it’s complex and unwieldy. How to explain that performance is often more about the whole than the sum of the parts?

As leaders, you’re asked to bridge the gaps among performance management system limitations, employee expectations and differing points of view. Unless this happens to be one of your key strengths, it’s not an easy task.

Dreaded performance reviews can become awkward, tense, and combative.  The disconnect often lies in those performance aspects we can’t measure or identify so easily—things like leadership and approach and behaviour and worldview—things that we may not have developed the language needed to explain.


So is there help for less dread and greater ease? I believe there is. Consider the following:

1.      Conduct a team meeting beforehand to help your whole team understand the system and what kinds of things to expect in their review meetings. Be transparent. You might touch on what performance elements are taken into account in the ratings, what might not be, and how increases are considered. The group meeting will also help you get clearer in how you apply the performance management system. Use the team meeting to set expectations, answer hard questions and reduce the time spent in difficult individual discussions.

2.      Create, post and regularly communicate your vision for the team you lead. The vision should describe what kind of team you expect to work with to get the results asked of it. The vision can speak to character traits, behaviours, openness to learning, commitment etc. that you personally believe are needed for the team’s success. An example of a vision might be something like this: ‘My vision is to lead a team of people I can count on with complete confidence. I see myself leading a team of dedicated, high achievers who are open to new learning, collaborate effectively across teams, are committed to satisfying our internal and external clients and who come to work everyday supporting our vision and objectives.’ Your vision statement can help both set expectations and be used as a ‘measurement’ in the some of those dreaded reviews where you are are trying to talk about the real issues.

3.      If you’re coming from a sincere intention of wanting the individual to succeed, build the courage needed to begin an honest dialogue that helps the individual see what you’re seeing, why it’s causing a problem and find out what ideas he/she can come up with to make this a non-issue going forward. Sit confidently in your truth. Using good coaching questions will help you shift focus and responsibility to where it belongs while reducing the dread factor.

OFFER: If you’d like some support on a difficult or dreaded upcoming performance review, please feel free to email me to set up a complimentary 15 minute phone session.

Happy Monday!

Warmest wishes,




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