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How to: Conduct a successful performance review


They may be part and parcel of the training manager's life but there is a certain art to getting the most out of them. John Pope advises on how to tackle the dreaded performance review.

Most of us will have had reviews which were skimped or ineffective, late or did not address issues we felt were important. Many of us will have had reviews which concentrated on the past and did not help us for the future. Some will have had reviews which were downright de-motivating. Some will have been missed out altogether – perhaps fortunately.

The performance review has been around for over forty years and there have been many books on the subject. We should be doing a better job of helping our people improve their performance and readiness for more demanding or responsible work. That ‘better’ job is not that difficult to do, but it does need time and commitment.

The foundation

  • You have to keep aware of each member’s significant achievements, failures and the way they approach that work. In the course of regular supervision you have to discover what they are good at doing and what talents they have shown – and you have to make brief notes.
  • You need occasional discussions with each member on how they could do a better job and what may be holding them back.
  • You have to know how they have been managed and what has affected their performance, always remembering the ‘Performance Equation’. Performance = Skill x Resources x Opportunity x Effort
  • And periodically you have to ask each one the ‘Power Questions': “How can we do a better job together?”, “What else could you do?”, “What would you like to take on?”

We have to pay real attention to the answers, do something constructive, observe the result and make notes. That is a continuing informal performance review – it is the foundation for the periodic more formal review, usually annual.  Your notes give you the material you need for the subsequent more formal discussion.

"Be realistic – start with small steps, consolidate, then you can take bigger ones. Don’t start your climbing experience on a 23,000 ft mountain – start with a 2,000 ft one."

Your research and preparation

You should be able to guess the questions which will come up from each member of your team at the discussion. If not you had better do the research beforehand so that you know what help you could give, what you could do as well as practical ones regarding training, job moves and so on. You should know your organisation and your own limitations.

Your people should be prepared

After all, it is their development and careers which depend in part on this review. If you have been having regular individual discussions on their work, their performance and development needs, they should have their own ideas. You should have been encouraging them to take at least some responsibility for their future. However those who have not previously had thorough reviews – the sort you are going to do – may need to be encouraged to prepare so that you can have a good discussion.

It’s a discussion not an interview and certainly not a disciplinary

It is side-by-side, working together with the aims of improving performance and realising underused potential. It has to produce an agreed practical plan, and identify how any needs for development can be met, realistically. So do away with the four-page formal record, with nine or 19 ‘key competencies’ marked in five grades, and the ‘seven key objectives’.

You are doing well if you can concentrate on two or three aspects for improvement and two or three clear practical objectives. And if you can find two or three development opportunities that’s fine – when they have been achieved you could add a few more. Be realistic – start with small steps, consolidate, then you can take bigger ones. Don’t start your climbing experience on a 23,000 ft mountain – start with a 2,000 ft one.

Create a productive atmosphere

You set the tone and the pace. You focus on the future – you cannot change the past. You may need to refer to it for examples of good and bad performance or approach, but don’t turn it into a trial. Start with good points rather than bad ones. If you get resistance to your views handle it carefully and be prepared to approach a difficult topic in a range of ways.

Make a plan together

It has to be a joint plan. It must be seen as important. It must cover what each of you will do, what each will contribute, what resources or opportunities you will produce. It must be clear when it will start, when you will jointly review progress, when you will assess the results, and perhaps identify the next project. If it affects others in your team, or elsewhere, you have to make it clear to them that you support the plan or project and that you will not allow interference.

"L & D need to know of individuals who have latent talent and consider how it can be developed further."

Daunting? It shouldn’t be if you have arranged it as a series of steps – as Chairman Mao wrote – 'A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.' Make those steps simple to start with; you can make them bigger later on. Failures? Some will succeed beyond all expectations; some will fail, perhaps repeatedly, or lack commitment; some will make a moderate improvement. Not all will become strong performers. Managers will be concerned about the amount of time and effort it may take, but the benefits of an easily attainable 10% increase in team performance will have more than repaid in your investment.

You’ve spotted some talent

Most people have a talent for something. Part of your job is to find undeveloped talent which the organisation could use somewhere else. It may not be evident in the current job, so consider how and where it could be valuable and make sure that it is recorded.

Learning and Development

And how can L & D help? Some managers will be wary of having the sort of discussions I have described. Many managers will not know what sort of help they or their people need and what L & D could provide. And L & D need to know of individuals who have latent talent and consider how it can be developed further.

John Pope has been a management consultant for over 40 years and has worked to improve the development and performance of managers and management teams at all levels for most of his career. To know more about John’s work and service please visit the website: His book ‘Winning Consultancy Business’ was published in July and is now available through his website. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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