Credit: Carl Court/Staff/Getty Images
May 3, 2022 7:30 AM EDT

If you put off annual reviews during the last two years of the pandemic, you’re far from alone—roughly 30% of companies made changes to their review cycle in 2020, according to one McKinsey survey, and around 5% canceled them entirely. Now, as more companies are deciding return-to-office plans and figuring out their long-term futures, the pendulum is swinging the other way: Annual performance reviews aren’t just back. They’re happening much more frequently than just once a year.

While structured feedback may be making a comeback, there’s reason to worry about how that feedback lands with workplaces still contending with the effects of Covid. These are still remote, understaffed, uncertain, grief-stricken, and sensitive times. (And even in the best of times, reviews have never been a painless process; some research even suggests that they can actually be counterproductive, in part because they often spark feelings of competition and anxiety.)

I spoke to a range of people managers to figure out how to structure these reviews and the best questions to ask—of both the employee being reviewed and of the people providing the feedback. One common theme: It’s a manager’s responsibility not only to deliver feedback, but to help their reports absorb it. That might mean being open to rescheduling, or deferring to an employee who would prefer to have the conversation over Zoom instead of in person. And it definitely means creating a quiet, uninterrupted environment.

“It’s critical for managers to get a real sense of how employees are doing prior to a review,” says Jessica Dang, talent and performance management leader at Intuit. “We are all juggling many things, and the pandemic often perpetuates additional responsibilities, from caring for family members, to illness, to stress and mental health challenges and more.… If employees are not in a headspace to receive feedback, it will not be heard.”

Below is advice from Dang and others for how to deliver reviews that help all involved learn and grow. We also pulled out specific questions managers can use to guide the script; it often helps to send these in advance, so both parties can plan, get specific, and be more productive, both in the review conversations and beyond.

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Make reviews happen more often

There are plenty of HR software programs and products to help collect and deliver feedback from multiple places (Lattice is a popular one). But more important than how you collect the information is how you frame your questions—and how often you ask them.

Reviews should ideally be woven into your meeting cadence at least monthly, a practice that both helps individual contributors meet their goals and helps managers become more effective coaches, according to Josh Saterman, CEO and co-founder of the culture-focused consulting firm Saterman Connect and co-author of the leadership book Arrive. Drive. Thrive. If the term “review” is too anxiety-inducing, he recommends rebranding them to something like “courageous connections” or “weekly/monthly connections.”

The framework for these conversations can be straightforward. Saterman recommends starting with these two questions:

  1. Share with me one thing that you would like to celebrate with me this week.
  2. Share one thing you’d like to erase from your to-do list this week.

Then every five to six months, remember to zoom out a bit with questions like:

  1. What motivates you?
  2. What does recognition look like?
  3. What does success feel like? How do you want to be celebrated?

Take a 360-degree view

Pre-pandemic, many companies had already adopted so-called 360 reviews—a talent development term for feedback coming from all directions, including peers and direct reports as well as managers. Remote and hybrid work make this type of feedback, which clarifies performance (and goals) around collaboration, even more essential.

“Many organizations are still using outdated performance review systems, where it’s the manager giving the employee feedback,” says Mita Mallick, head of inclusion, equity, and impact at Carta. “In this environment, it’s impossible to know everything a team member is doing.” Implementing 360 feedback allows managers to see the fuller picture.

The 360-degree view is an especially critical tool for identifying workplace bullies, who are often exceptional at managing up. “This will provide a holistic view of their leadership, versus the false narrative a bully in the organization might be sharing about themselves with the higher-ups,” Mallick explains. To help employees feel comfortable enough to flag behaviors like bullying, “ensure the feedback is anonymous, and in some cases a third-party coach or (human resources) along with the boss should be present to deliver the feedback.”

Focus on the people the Great Resignation left behind

For all the memos and headlines written on the Great Resignation, the workers who haven’t quit might be feeling a bit ignored.

“During this Great Resignation, the team members who are left are taking on more and more work. Make sure they are getting credit and being recognized for the extra hours they may be putting in,” Mallick says.

And with a tight labor market and continued economic uncertainty, it’s more necessary than ever for employers to grow their own leaders.

“There is a tremendous amount of personal growth opportunity if we take the time to tap into it right now—more like a Great Aspiration, rather than the Great Resignation,” says Whitney Johnson, CEO of the coaching firm Disruption Advisors and author of Smart Growth: How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company.

Leaders looking to develop their employees should ask targeted questions, she says: “Where are you in your growth? Do you want to continue to grow here? How can I help you?”

Ask the right questions

Here are some of the questions managers also recommended to spark more productive review conversations:

From Johnson:

  • Where are you in your personal and professional growth in this position? At this company?
  • Where are you on the S-Curve of Learning (a trajectory for mastering new skills)? Where do you want to be?
  • Are there things that you need from me to help you grow?

From Saterman:

  • What motivates you?
  • What does success look like for you in this role and at this organization?
  • How do you wish to be recognized when you accomplish your goals?

From Melissa Daimler, chief learning officer of Udemy and author of ReCulturing: Design Your Company Culture To Connect With Strategy And Purpose For Lasting Success.

  • How am I helping you be successful?
  • What can I do to better help or support you?
  • What are the skills you want to develop to ensure you continue to grow here?”

From Lattice’s recommendations for 360s:

  • What is one thing this employee should start doing?
  • What is one thing this employee should continue doing?
  • What is one thing this employee should stop doing?
  • How well does this person manage their time and workload?
  • Share an example of a company value this person has brought to life.
  • What are three or four words you would use to describe this employee?
  • [For someone in a leadership role] If you were this leader, what would be the first action you would take?
  • How well does this person adapt to changing priorities?

Focus on how you receive feedback

Just as it’s a manager’s job to thoughtfully deliver a review, it’s an employee’s job to thoughtfully take what they’ve heard and put it to use. Saterman suggests an approach he calls TAPP:

1. Take a breath. Before you react to what’s being said, give yourself a few moments to sit with the information.

2. Ask for an example if you’re unsure about anything.

3. Provide a next step or propose a follow-up meeting to come up with an action plan.

And while the time between reviews may be shrinking, it can help employees and managers alike to think of them as conversations about larger, more existential issues. A performance review, at its core, is an opportunity to chart a path toward greater satisfaction in work (and life). Are you happy? What do you actually want to be doing? Sometimes, the smaller questions are a foundation to help you break the script and ask the big ones.

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