Here’s the worst performance review I ever received: “You were great.” The review was via email, and when I commented on its brevity, my boss said the “outrageous Internet salary” he gave me was testament to how much he wanted to keep me.

Apparently he did not know that survey after survey has shown that salary is not the most important factor in job satisfaction. People want to feel useful, they want to be challenged, and they want to be recognized for their contribution. A key way that managers can do this for their employees is to conduct a careful, well-planned and insightful review. (A good fallback is to use a systematic approach, like performance appraisal software.)

But good performance review takes heart. You need to really see the employee and understand what motivates her. You need to understand where she wants to go, because the job of you, the manager, is to help her get there. And of course, a good manager will show the employee why she should want for herself what her manager wants for her.

An employee knows right away how prepared you are for the review, so don’t bother trying to fake it; this is not a college essay test, this is real life. Lack of preparation means that you do not take the review seriously, so you can bet the employee will ignore what you say. Lack of preparation means mentoring and leading are not high priorities, and managers who do not make those high priorities are managers who have ill-prepared disloyal employees.

Here’s the best review I ever had: My boss sat down with me and handed me two typed pages — one of my strengths and one of my weaknesses. This might seem like standard practice, but to do this practice well requires thoughtful preparation. In the strengths section my boss highlighted areas of my performance that I didn’t think he noticed — like that I am a strong mentor. He also highlighted areas that I didn’t realize were strengths — like that I can lead without explicit authority.

When my boss got to the weakness section of the review he had already won me over with his insight, so I listened attentively. He told me that I needed to be more discreet when I want to disagree with him. And he gave me examples of ways that I had disagreed with him over the past year, and ways that I could have done it without publicly undermining him. He also explained to me how to make sure that people don’t do that to me, their manager, now that they have seen me do it to my manager. In ways like this, my boss let me know that he really wanted me to succeed, and he was going to help me to make sure it happened.

There was no raise at that review (I had already blackmailed him for a raise earlier in the year and he had given me the raise and explained why my approach was not good for building relationships). There was also no quantification (“You get a six for teamwork, you get a five for cleaning up the kitchen…”). What there was in that review was a deep concern for me, as a person, and a deep appreciation for what I had done for his company.

So take this opportunity to make a big impression in someone’s life. You do not get the chance to save starving children, but you can make the world a better place by approaching reviews in a way that makes each employee feel cared about and important. This goes for employees who suck, too. In fact, people usually suck because they hate their job and feel like it’s not doing anything for them. It was layoff season at the end of last year. If you couldn’t figure out how to get rid of the person at that point, you owe it to everyone to make the best of the situation with a well-prepared review. And for those of you who have a boss who has rescheduled your review six times, or not scheduled it at all: send her this column.

6 replies
  1. Nina
    Nina says:

    Hello Penelope,

    I actually posted a comment on another article that you wrote. I would just like to say thank you for taking the time to answer my question.

    This comment is different. On December 31, 2007, my managers gave me my annual performance review. I will not to go into great detail, but the overall rating was an NI(Needs Improvement). I am on probation for two years. For the last review, which was 6 months ago, I also received an NI. So not much has changed. As I looked over it there were some areas that were higlighted that needed improvement. Since a good part of my job is writing letters as you know grammar, spelling, sentence structure are all important. Unfortunately, my managers are not completely satisfied and the review actually provided examples where there was lack of understanding and a lot errors on my letters.

    Although the positive attributes on the review were my good attendance, puncuality, a strong work ethic and good time management and listening skills etc., my managers feel that if I unable to focus on the key elements of writing, then I will quote in their words “failure to make needed progress may result in termination.”

    Based on this review, I think the only other choice would be to find another job because termination can happen at any time.

    If you can provide suggestions let me know.

    P.S. I have read a couple of your other articles where you mentioned that paying attention to detail and grammar are important, but no person, not even a manager of a company should make it so important to the point of perfection. Well, I have a manager like that. She is critical of everything I write! It drives me nutz sometimes.

  2. Don B.
    Don B. says:

    Nina: I do not know how to post this so you will see it. My opinion based on thirty-seven years of employment experience is to not assume you need to get another job. Do that if you want another job or need the security. I know many people with NI ratings decades ago who are now stars at the same place. Proving you can deal with the rating and making progress are highly valued. The best way to tell you are truly in danger of termination or are unwanted is a complete lack of merit or cost-of-living wage increases. This is a more negative hidden message than a bad performance review.

  3. AQUIB
    AQUIB says:

    My opinion based on thirty-seven years of employment experience is to not assume you need to get another job. Do that if you want another job or need the security. I know many people with NI ratings decades ago who are now stars at the same place. Proving you can deal with the rating and making progress are highly valued. The best way to tell you are truly in danger of termination or are unwanted is a complete lack of merit or cost-of-living wage increases. This is a more negative hidden message than a bad performance review.

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