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Hey supervisors! Here's how to write performance reviews that are actually (gasp!) motivating



Performance review season tends to elicit groans, procrastination, and sudden regrets over trendy collaborative workspace configurations that limit hiding; and it seems everyone agrees:

  • Many employees dislike the process because it can feel inauthentic or obligatory. Ranking systems can also encourage employees to “play it safe” in their jobs by avoiding risks, thereby limiting learning – the actual goal of reviews.

  • 95% of managers are unsatisfied with the system.

  • 90% of HR professionals don’t think the reviews provide accurate, usable information.


Nevertheless, although many companies are starting to experiment with approaches they hope will be more authentic, performance reviews in more traditional forms persist. And although they can be done badly, they can be done well too.


Performance reviews can provide the opportunity for two-way communication, which promotes trust and engagement. They can forge bonds between direct reports and managers who don’t get a lot of one-on-one time otherwise. Most importantly, they can cause change where needed, and increase engagement and motivation.


How can we improve the way we talk about performance?


So how can we ensure direct reports feel recognized, engaged with new learning and growth objectives, and motivated to improve their work and be their best? For starters, let’s think about what we say and how we say it. Below, On the Job Learning offers four strategies for "languaging" your performance reviews towards stronger employee engagement and improvement.


1. Rate the performance, not the person.

This means your language should be objective, not subjective. The matter at hand is the behavior or action shown by a particular person over the course of the last year – not the individual as a person. By writing objectively instead of subjectively, and about behaviors and actions instead of individuals, negative comments on performance reviews feel less personal. When we don't feel personally attacked, we don't get defensive.

Your language choices matter when it comes to writing about objective actions and events.

Use active verbs instead of “to be.”

Use active verbs instead of “to be.” Writing that somebody “is” a certain way confirms you’re being subjective. Writing that they “arrive punctually,” however, measures their behavior. Consider this comparison:


  • William is inconsistent about huddle attendance.

  • William inconsistently attends huddles.


Only one of the above statements runs the risk that William will come out of that meeting saying, “They called me ‘inconsistent.’”


So, after writing down the person’s name, don’t follow that word with “is.” Follow it with a verb: the person’s behaviors or action, what they do, not who they are.


2. Get tangible about deliverables.


Don’t just tell people what to do or not do; tell them “how” as well. Or, if you want to encourage them to seek their own strategies, at least tell them what doing something better would look like. Provide examples of the behaviors you’re looking for.


I didn’t think it was possible to show what “paying attention” looks like until I heard from a learner that he’d praised his direct report’s attention to others by noting she “made consistent eye contact” and consistently “checked for understanding by summarizing what she’d heard.” Verbiage like that shows how attention manifests. This supervisor showed his direct report “what it looks like” when talking about paying attention. That means his direct report will know specifically what to keep doing.

Write with a Who + What + How structure.

To do this, follow a Who + What + How structure. Instead of saying “Marcus should manage his time better,” say “Marcus can improve time management in meetings by publishing an agenda beforehand and using a timer.”


Instead of saying “Jenna works well with others,” say “Jenna collaborates well with peers by listening attentively to their ideas without interruption, and providing specific contributions to discussions.”


3. Encourage a growth mindset.


Research shows us the power of a growth mindset to personal and professional success. To encourage a growth mindset, supervisors must “language” their reviews carefully. So, point to the future; don’t dwell in the past.


Choose words that speak to the capacity for change and growth, and provide the tools to help employees get there. Write positively about the agents of change and growth: setbacks, challenges, and mistakes; effort, learning, strategies, and persistence; improvement, progress, and development. This means it's actually better to talk about learning, including the inherent mistakes, as a good thing.

This means it's actually better to talk about learning, including the inherent mistakes, as a good thing.

You may also have heard the research from our children’s schools: when teachers and parents praise effort, children try harder; when they praise talent or skills or inborn factors like appearance or even intellect, they don’t. So don’t talk about perfection, and don’t dwell on inborn qualities; instead, speak to efforts and progress, and the tools direct reports are consciously choosing to employ in order to better themselves and their work.


4. Individualize your writing.


I recently taught four sessions for managers and executives supervisors, on how to write performance reviews that motivate. One participant told a story about a review she’d received in the past, saying she came out of the meeting feeling like she was the only person her supervisor had reviewed.


This supervisor had noticed specific things she’d done all year, and had remembered them. She left the meeting motivated to do even better because she'd been recognized for her own individual contributions. And don't we all often excruciate about our contributions going unnoticed?


Another participant countered with a what-not-to-do anecdote: he described a review process he’d gone through in the past, in which he’d felt he was one of hundreds of generically-reviewed people. Not being seen as a person who had taken specific, conscious actions over the past year made him feel demoralized, to say the least.


As a supervisor, you’re in charge of helping humans develop to their full potential. This means seeking to understand them as individuals, to the extent possible. Include examples of their work over the past year, and speak to their individual goals as you write

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