Performance reviews should be unsurprising, fair, and motivating

This post originally appeared in my newsletter. Subscribe to receive it!

Performance review season is upon us again!

A couple of years ago around this time I emailed tips for:

This time, I want to talk about how to make sure your reports’ performance reviews are able to be digested and acted upon by the recipient.

If you’ve written up your report’s performance review and checked to make sure your feelings aren’t included, you’ve documented your fact-based observations rather than assumptions or judgments about their behavior, and the feedback is specific (not broad or vague), you’re ready for the next step!

It’s time to make sure the performance review is unsurprising, fair, and motivating. I’ve included tactics to help you below.

Here’s how :)
—Lara

Make the feedback unsurprising.

In another post, I talk through how to create a feedback routine to ensure your reports’ performance reviews have no surprises. I also share some tactics to triple-check that your teammates are hearing and digesting your feedback.

But what if you’re delivering performance reviews right now, and this will be the first time your reports are hearing this particular feedback?

First, I need you to commit to not letting this happen again. ;) Then:

  1. Acknowledge with your report that this is the first time you’re bringing it up.
  2. Commit to partnering with them on new solutions or changes to address the feedback.
  3. Do not let the brand-new feedback weigh heavily in their rating (especially if you do employee ratings that impact compensation in any way). If the contents of your report’s performance review are surprising to them, then that’s (likely) on you as their manager. I’ll talk next time about how to prevent this from happening in the future, but for now, let’s talk about how to make your feedback fair.

Make the feedback fair.

We’re optimizing for making sure your report’s performance review is both digestible and actionable. To do this, we need to keep their prefrontal cortex—the rational, logical part of the brain—online, and make sure we don’t inadvertently hijack their amygdala.

We know that fairness is a core need that our amygdalas are constantly on the lookout for. If there’s even a hint that someone isn’t being treated fairly and equitably, our amygdala can wake up (the good old fight or flight mode!) and tell our prefrontal cortex to go on standby. When this happens, the person in fight-or-flight mode can’t really hear or digest what’s being said.

Since you’ve already removed any feedback that has to do with your feelings, and you’ve documented your fact-based observations rather than assumptions or judgments about their behavior, you’re on the right track! We just need to make sure your delivery of the feedback remains just as fair.

Own the feedback

Synthesizing others’ feedback can be tough. You’re not in every meeting, and you don’t see every interaction. Writing up performance evaluations require you to take in data points from other people and turn it all into actionable and specific feedback for your report—but how can we do that in a fair way?

Think of it this way: you own the performance review and the feedback inside it; your report owns their behavior, and what they choose to do next.

So consider how you can personally own the words that you write down and deliver in your performance review. This may not have originally been your personal feedback, but as a manager who’s going on the record with it and delivering it to your teammate, it’s your feedback now.

I find it’s helpful to do this in one of two ways:

If you can’t personally own this feedback, then I need to ask: why are you delivering it? It’s your responsibility to make sure the team is working effectively together, and the projects are getting done. If you deliver feedback that amounts to “here’s what I’ve heard from other people, but I personally can’t back it up or reason with you about it”, that’s not fair to your teammate.

Remember, your role here is to create actionable (and digestible!) feedback so that your teammate understands what they need to do going forward. In order to give them that clarity (and support them along the way), you’ve gotta own the performance review.

Tie feedback to role expectations and business outcomes

Ground your feedback in what’s expected of this person at their level, in this role. Connect the dots between the feedback you’re giving (all of it—including the positive parts!) and:

Connecting those dots will help reinforce what’s expected of your report, but more importantly, it’ll help ensure that your feedback isn’t vague or generalized. Being this specific—and tying the feedback to business impact—will also help you and your report when it comes time for promotion conversations.

Make the feedback motivating.

Folks who have worked with me know that “What are you optimizing for?” is my #1 favorite coaching question. It works in so many different contexts: helping someone identify what they want in a new job, unpick what’s bugging them about a work conflict, weigh difficult tradeoffs, etc.

And this question DEFINITELY comes in handy when you’re preparing to give feedback!

I recommend framing the biggest behavior change you’d like to see from your direct report in terms of what they are currently optimizing for. Some examples:

You can totally deliver a performance review in which you skip this step, but honestly, this makes your life (and your report’s) so much easier. It’s just so motivating!

Last but not least, check with your report to see which medium they’d prefer to receive their performance review in. You’ll probably need to have a written version and have a conversation face-to-face with them, but ask what order they’d prefer!

Some folks would prefer to have the conversation first so that they can ask questions, get a read on your body language and tone, and come up with action items together… then read the official written review afterward to see if there’s anything they missed. Others would prefer to read it first on their own, take some time to process it privately, and then talk about it together afterwards. Each person’s amygdala will need a different thing. :)


Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.