Few people hear “performance review” or “quarterly check-in” without a pit forming in their stomachs. When performance reviews can be uncomfortable, or even a precursor to layoffs — a churning, recession-era fear expressed by Google staffers recently — it’s understandable why the process inspires unease.
According to HR experts, developing a culture of continuous feedback can assuage these worries twofold — a dynamic discussed in “Setting Up Managers for Success Beyond the Performance Review,” a Nov. 29 panel held by L&D company LifeLabs.
With perpetual feedback, workers can get on the same page as managers about their expectations and deliverables — and necessary strategies to link the two. In turn, managers give their direct reports a chance to meet KPIs successfully, panelists said.
“It comes down to consistency,” said Joseph Ifiegbu, co-founder and CEO of talent data company Eqtble, during the panel. “Review should be a part of your day-to-day conversation. It shouldn’t be a surprise when you say, ‘Hey, this is something that has not gone right.’”
Here are actionable tips panelists offered for creating a feedback-rich work environment.
Understand the “why”
Why is it important to have more frequent performance reviews? One reason is so that managers and supervisors have a better understanding of their direct report’s performance. In particular, Ifiegbu told the audience how a lack of regular check-ins can lead to recency bias.
In essence, without regular check-ins, stellar performers who hit a slump recently might receive unnecessarily harsh reviews — and slackers who’ve been getting lucky may receive undue praise.
Take framework into consideration
Before jumping to blame an employee, managers and HR pros should look at the company feedback frameworks, Involvi Consulting President Ashley McKarney told the panel. “Look at the processes that the company has provided in how to do the job,” the human resource consultant said.
Next, managers should assess whether they have clearly communicated expectations to their direct reports and have given their team the necessary tools and bandwidth to achieve their goals. “Look in the mirror,” she continued. “‘How have I done as a leader in preparing them for that success?’ After those two things — [if] as a leader, you’ve done everything you can and so has the company — then maybe it is that person in their role.”
Stop hoarding feedback
“The other thing about only leveraging the performance review — as your one place for feedback — is that people tend to hold on to feedback until it is time for the performance review,” Vanessa Tanicien, LifeLabs’ director of product strategy and event moderator, said. “‘Protective hesitation’ is when folks decide not to breach touchy subject matter situations because they don’t want to get into conflict. This happens all the time within the workplace.”
She added, “that is another reason why we want to think about giving feedback as a perpetual experience.”
What happens when managers don’t do performance reviews effectively? Tanicien brought up the phenomenon of “managerial debt,” as coined by venture capitalist Ben Horowitz.
Sometimes, she said, leaders take “shortcuts” with their direct reports. “We don’t do everything we need to do, but what happens is our culture takes a hit, that person’s development takes a hit and that managerial debt decides to pile up,” Tanicien said. “We can invest in the core skills of coaching, feedback, productivity and prioritization, effective one-on-ones. We’re able to pay that debt down.”
Take time for self-review
Per McKarney, self-awareness and understanding of both a team’s capabilities and potential are helpful traits for the feedback-minded manager. Humility, in the vein of saying “I don’t know” or “this is my first time doing this,” are also key. “That creates that culture of safety and two-way feedback, so that if there is something [negative] going on, it’s an easier conversation,” McKarney said.
Feedback as a “two-way street” was a recurring theme throughout the panel. Notably, Ifiegbu recalled a boss who would start each check-in by asking if he could be doing anything better as a manager — a habit that left an impression on Ifiegbu.
Give talent a soft landing place
Another takeaway was the importance of cultivating psychological safety.
Empowering employees to take creative risks is another part of fostering a positive workplace culture. If employers create a place where it’s safe to “fail forward” and make mistakes without severe penalization, workers will be more likely to move forward with confidence, McKarney said.
The goal is to imbue talent with an “ongoing sense that they are a contributing member of the team,” McKarney said, and that “it’s hard to run the company without them.”