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How to Do Performance Reviews

Feedback
Team Processes
Performance

2 July, 2021

Jennifer Agerton
Jennifer Agerton

Chief Product Officer at AirHelp

Jennifer Agerton, VP of Product at letgo, outlines how to do performance reviews, making them the most interactive to ensure her reports’ continual growth.

Problem

I had started my current job on the very week the performance review season started. I found myself in an awkward situation of having to give people reviews without knowing them and relying on other people’s summarized feedback. In addition, my past professional experience shaped how I understood feedback, and how it was approached in my current job wasn’t adding as much value as I thought it could. Therefore I decided to play a bit with it and see if I can make performance reviews more interactive. I wanted to have more engaging and meaningful conversations that could help people on my team on their path of growth.

Actions taken

Preparation

I would prepare diligently for performance conversations. To begin with, I would gather in advance feedback from my reports’ peers. The questionnaire would be well structured, and everyone would be asked the same kind of questions. I would keep it up to a few open-end questions, maximizing the amount of response I could get. I would focus on specific tasks someone was performing well and concrete examples that showcased their superpower(s) and areas where they were falling short of expectations.

I would encourage people on my team to go and ask for direct feedback from their peers bypassing me -- or any other person, for that matter -- as a middleman. In most companies, including my own, 360-degree feedback is typically anonymous, which I acknowledge but I also encourage my team to ask people directly and bring back that unmediated feedback into our discussion.

At some point before the session, I would have a conversation on their aspiration and I would try to avoid having any assumptions about their career path. My recommendations and thoughts on their growth should take into account what they wanted, not what I believed they wanted.

As a part of the prep work, I would put some ample time to think through my feedback and write it down. I would use a career or competency framework and try to look through the expectations, tailoring my feedback to match those expectations. The next step would be to identify where people were doing well and stretching beyond expectations and where there were some improvement areas (not necessarily under-expectations) but opportunities to grow. Together we would map out a future course of action and identify how I could help.

After collecting all the information -- including verbatim feedback -- and completing my own assessment, I would send it all to a report at least a day in advance. People need some to process feedback, even a positive one. Having some extra time helps to internalize it and process it less emotionally and more cognitively. The relationship people have with receiving feedback could fluctuate with time, and they could overlook some key points in a rush to digest it on the fly. At the same time, I would ask my reports to complete their self-assessment ahead of time, so I could process it before the meeting.

Performance Review Session

Both my report and I would be coming into a session prepared and familiar with all the input beforehand. During the session, I would use Metro Retro, a simple tool for collaborative brainstorming and retrospectives. I would set up the boards with things that were going well, areas that could be improved, and future actions. For the first ten minutes, we would do silent brainstorming shuffling post-it notes, each their own. They would also have time to consider peer feedback and see what was applicable and what wasn’t.

Then, I would initiate a conversation about what both of us shared in our two boards. We would cluster post-it notes into themes, grouping similar ideas. We would also discuss discrepancies and clarify potential mismatches. The whole process would be highly interactive -- both of us would talk, discuss issues and deliver feedback. In the end, we would bundle all items into ‘What could be improved’ and ‘Specific actions’, taking into account a person’s aspirations.

Follow-up

Once a month, I would designate one of our one-on-ones to revisit the Metro Retro board. We would look into it to see if it was still applicable or if they were stuck on something. That would allow us to come up with new actions during the following performance review because they progressed on things we previously discussed.

Finally, I would do feedback on me and how I conducted the sessions, asking people how helpful sessions were and what could be improved. I received some great ideas for improvement, but overall, they were exceedingly well received.

Lessons learned

  • Spend time preparing. A performance review session is an important conversation that deserves some serious prep work. Going in and wing it wouldn’t do your report justice. Instead, your preparedness could make a significant difference for someone in their career. Also, when I am prepared, I can have a more objective conversation as opposed to coming up with things on the top of my head and improvising on the fly.
  • Don’t wait for a review to deliver feedback related to underperformance. It could be something you have noticed or something that was received through peers; regardless, address it on the spot. Also, don’t spring drastic feedback on people, especially that they are not meeting expectations. That should be done on the spot and then brought up in the review to assess the progress. It’s not fair not to give people an opportunity to address it before.
  • Send a session outline in advance. People need time to process information and collect their own thoughts if you want them to respond at their best. Acknowledge the difficulty of talking through feedback in general, but also acknowledge how it can impact different personalities. I want to honor different personalities (introverts/extroverts, people who need more time for social interaction) and tailor my approach accordingly.
  • Whenever possible, don’t summarize or deliver other people’s feedback. Things can often get muddied, and you will find yourself talking about a situation you don’t know much about. I encourage people to get direct feedback from their peers, or if that is not possible, I will pass it verbatim (and anonymously). I would rather have them read what had been said than read my interpretations of that.
  • Don’t assume what the other person is thinking/feeling. Even after reading their assessment, I wouldn’t walk into a session summarizing their thoughts but would rather have them say it.
  • Make sure to leave a session with a concrete set of actions. Also, make sure that actions should be undertaken by a report and not a manager. Walk out with actions that would empower your report to make a difference. Understand where you should step in and offer support, but don’t make the mistake of taking it all on yourself.

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