How to Prepare for Performance Reviews in 4 Simple Steps

PUblished on: 

June 6, 2024

Updated on: 

Written by 

Lucy Georgiades

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Throughout my coaching career, many clients have asked me how to prepare for a performance review and how to conduct one effectively. Understandably, it's a period where everyone feels anxious -- "How should I set up these meetings? How do I present the feedback without hurting someone’s feelings? What if they get upset?!"

To help alleviate that stress and give you peace of mind during the review process, we've created a step-by-step checklist to help you feel more calm and confident.

The tips provided in this blog work nicely alongside any current process that your organization has established. At the end of this checklist, you will learn how to effectively prepare for, conduct, and follow-up after performance reviews.

If you’re in HR or People teams, share this with your people managers to help them prepare and conduct performance reviews more confidently.

Get free access to the ‘Performance Review’ training plan and feel more confident running performance reviews, giving feedback, driving accountable and more through interactive micro content.

I’m Ready to Run Effective Performance Reviews

How to Prepare for a Performance Review

Preparation is key! Do not be tempted to wing these conversations. Even the most skilled ‘wingers’ can get stumped. Use our 4-Part Preparation Checklist and follow our performance review tips before starting your conversations. By doing this, you will keep their prep time quick and efficient!

4-Part Preparation Checklist

4-Part Performance Preview Preparation Checklist

Part 1: Prepare the Feedback

Before you sit down and write the feedback, I'd suggest reading our guides on How to Give Constructive Criticism and How to Give Positive Feedback.

You'll learn a simple 4-point structure in each of those guides to give constructive and positive feedback that actually inspires behavioral changes. You may want to include feedback you hear from others in addition to your own. This helps you see the whole picture of your report’s contribution, even if they work in different locations.

As you’re preparing for performance reviews, make sure to be aware of any biases that may unwittingly worm their way into the process.

While most performance reviews are prone to biases, here are 3 most common ones and how to avoid them:

  1. Recency bias. This is where the most recent occurrences are prioritized and deemed more valuable than taking a holistic view of the performance period. Looking at the  theme (from your feedback): Has it consistently shown up all year or just in the last couple of months?
  2. Primacy bias. This is when we focus on initial aspects of the relationship, like first impressions, instead of focusing on actual performance over time.
  3. Gender bias. Watch out for using gender-biased language in your feedback, like “helpful” for women or “assertive” for men. How do you know if you’re using gender-biased language? Reverse the gender. If reversing from masculine to feminine or vice-versa changes the meaning or sounds odd, you’re likely using gender-biased language.

Part 2: Identify the main themes

If you have quite a few points to cover in your performance reviews, breaking down the feedback into several main themes will make it much easier to digest and discuss. It will also make it easier for direct reports to set goals for themselves based on the themes.

Taking a step back and recognizing the themes will help identify patterns in behavior as well.

When you observe patterns, particularly in constructive feedback, the patterns often end up being surface symptoms rather than the actual cause.

Signs, like low engagement or being late, are often symptoms for something deeper at play.  

The goal is to strive to understand rather than make assumptions. Here are examples of a few questions you can use to deepen their understanding and get to the route cause of the surface symptoms.

These questions can be used to open up a sincere and impactful conversation:

  • 'I've noticed you've been contributing less in our last few team meetings. You're usually sharing more ideas and opinions - are you doing ok?
  • In our meeting with our project stakeholders yesterday, when I looked over at you, you often had a look of frustration, but stayed quiet. What was frustrating you? How can I help you feel more confident sharing?
  • I’ve noticed that you have been late to some meetings recently. What’s going on? What can I do to help?

Part 3: Pre-game the Tricky Elements

Most managers feel nervous to have performance review conversations because they might have to deliver feedback that could be a bit uncomfortable to discuss.

Confidence comes from practice - whether it’s role-playing ahead of time with someone else or even just out-loud, alone.

Try brainstorming the tricky questions or opinions which might come up during the review and writing down appropriate responses for them.

Some of the questions that may come up are:

  • Can you provide specific examples of where I excelled?
  • Where do you see areas for improvement and how can I address these?
  • How does my performance align with the company's goals and values?
  • Are there any opportunities for professional development or training that I can take advantage of?
  • What are the next steps in my career path here at this company?
  • How can I better support my teammates and/or direct reports?

Part 4: Pick the ‘one thing’

As you reflect on your direct reports' progress and potential future growth, what is the key area they should hone in on?

Even if goal-setting isn't discussed during the performance review, having a single takeaway to remember could really move the needle in their direct reports’ career. What will have the biggest impact and help them succeed even further?

Do you know how to give feedback in a direct manner but still kind?

Watch our free class on How to Give Feedback. You’ll hear how it sounds like and why managers say they wished they’d known this earlier.

Learn how now

How to Deliver a Performance Review

4-Part Delivery Structure

Part 1: Set the Agenda

You should start the performance review meeting with an overall statement about your direct report and keep it positive!

For example, “Over the last 6 months I’ve noticed you’ve made a real effort to implement a lot of the changes we’ve talked about since our previous review, especially with stakeholder engagement.”

Then segue into something like “I’d like to start our conversation by highlighting some things that I think you’ve done really well, then I’d like to discuss some constructive feedback to think about over the next quarter.”

Lastly, get a verbal agreement from them: “Does that sound ok?” The report will most likely say ‘yes’ (since they are prepared for the review), but asking for their permission is a very subtle way of putting the direct report in a position of control and they will be more likely to approach the conversation confidently.

Part 2: Deliver and Discuss the Positive Feedback

Yes - It’s really important to start with praise! Don’t shoehorn it in at the end of the conversation. It should come up-front and be given ample time to acknowledge.

This is an opportunity for direct reports to feel seen and appreciated and an opportunity for you to call out behaviors that they want to continue to see more of.

A performance review is the only time you will be giving both praise and constructive feedback in the same conversation, so there has to be a clear break between the two to better guide the conversation.

How to create a break between praises and constructive feedback? Here is a phrase that can be used as a guide:

“I want to reiterate how much I have seen you grow over the past few quarters and appreciate the attention to detail that you have applied to your stakeholder updates. I also want to share a couple areas of development that I think we could partner on together. Are you ready to move on to them now?

Do not use the ‘feedback sandwich’ model here (now better known as the sh*t sandwich!) in which you share some praise, then squashes in some constructive feedback, then ends with praise again. This wastes the positive impact of the praise and diminishes the directness of the constructive feedback.

TIP: Remember to praise folks for demonstrating the company values too!

Part 3: Deliver and Discuss the Constructive Feedback

Now, you will walk through their points of constructive feedback that they have prepared and summarize by highlighting the main themes.

You can start with, ”This feedback boils down to two main areas of improvement…”

And then summarize, "The main themes I've identified are..."

Get the discussion going. You can ask things like:

  • How do you feel about the feedback you’ve received?
  • What stood out for you as being particularly positive or negative?
  • What patterns can you see? What could be underlying them?
  • What has your intention been? Is there a difference between your intention and how others are perceiving it?
  • Is there anything that I’m not seeing?
  • What do you care most about working on?

TIP:  Use the 4-Point No-Drama Feedback Model from 'How To Give Constructive Feedback' guide to help you deliver feedback in a concise, direct and kind manner.

Part 4: Design the Follow Up

You can set aside some time at the end of the conversation to discuss developmental goals, but I often coach my clients to set up a separate conversation to do so. Performance reviews are about reflecting on what has happened in the past while follow up is about looking forward to the future.

It’s helpful to have the feedback sit with the direct report to allow them to digest and process then come back at a later date to set some development goals.

How to Follow Up After a Performance Review

After giving your feedback, it’s a good idea to help your direct report set some goals and for you to help keep them accountable. It can be a bit daunting to set development goals with your team, but don’t worry. We’ve got you covered.

When setting development goals, follow these 5 rules:

  1. Set Goals Together: You and your direct report should work together to set individual goals. The act of goal setting shouldn't be a one-way street, but a shared journey. This collaboration fosters a sense of ownership and accountability in your report. It's also much more enjoyable for both parties. As you set these goals, remember to keep them connected to your team and company objectives.
  2. Write Goals Down: Write down these goals in a shared document that can be updated at any time. This creates a written record that aids memory recall and ensures everyone is on the same page. The act of writing down your goals improves the encoding process, meaning you're more likely to remember them later.
  3. Frame Goals Positively: Language matters, especially when it comes to setting goals. Always frame goals in a positive light. Instead of saying, "I need to stop being worried about giving feedback", try, "I feel confident giving my team actionable feedback". This shifts the focus from what's wrong to what's possible, and it's much more empowering.
  4. Align Goals with Company Objectives: This is crucial. Your direct report needs to see how their individual work contributes to the broader team and company goals. Show them how their efforts have an impact. As the renowned author Jim Collins puts it, "Building a visionary company requires 1% vision and 99% alignment".
  5. Use the SMART Framework: Finally, use the SMART framework to ensure your goals are robust. They should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-framed. This provides a clear roadmap of what success looks like and how to get there.

Performance reviews can be an empowering experience for both you and your direct reports, if approached correctly. They're not just about scrutinizing past actions or accomplishments; they're a pivotal point of reflection, learning, and growth. By applying the methods and strategies we've discussed in this blog, you can transform these reviews into a dynamic dialogue, fostering a culture of transparency and continuous development within your organization.

Free 'Performance Reviews' Training Plan for Managers

The 'Performance Reviews' Training Plan is designed to help managers become more confident and competent in preparing for and delivering performance reviews.

This training plan is a collection of classes which help you master the skills of running effective performance reviews, including best practices for:

  • Running Performance Reviews
  • Setting Goals
  • Giving Feedback
  • Giving Praise
  • Driving Accountability
  • Receiving Feedback

Unlock your free access to Elevate Academy and start watching the training plan! Each class is only 5 to 10 minutes long, so you can catch one during a short break.

Lucy Georgiades

Founder & CEO @ Elevate Leadership

In London and Silicon Valley, Lucy has spent over a decade coaching Founders, CEOs, executive teams and leaders of all levels. She’s spent thousands of hours helping them work through challenges, communicate effectively, achieve their goals, and lead their people. Lucy’s background is in cognitive neuropharmacology and vision and brain development, which is all about understanding the relationships between the brain and human behavior. Lucy is an Oxford University graduate with a Bachelors and a Masters in Experimental Psychology and she specialized in neuroscience. She has diplomas with distinction in Corporate & Executive Coaching and Personal Performance Coaching from The Coaching Academy, U.K. She also has a National Diploma in Fine Art from Wimbledon School of Art & Design.