Tackling Annual Reviews: Will You Engage or Drain Your Team?

December is often the month when CEOs and managers do annual reviews.  These exchanges can be highly energizing, but often they are completely the opposite. And executives often overlook that how you say it is just as important as what you say.

Top 3 Mistakes Most Executives Make with Reviews:

  1. You gloss over tough issues that need to be addressed and disguise this lack of candor as an effort to be kind.
  2. You are overly direct and curt, demotivating the person and leaving the individual unsure of whether they really belong or fit in the company.
  3. You make the review too complicated.  You have 20 boxes to check and people walk away with a lot of input but no focus on what is most important for success and growth opportunities in the upcoming year.  

While I don’t expect you to radically change the way you deliver reviews, I do challenge you try something a little different this year.  Shift your approach to be less an authoritative boss telling your direct reports what to do and more of a guide, coaching them through the process.

Ask each of your direct reports to prepare for a discussion about next year and ask them to make sure they think through the following three questions prior to your meeting:  

  1. What were my greatest accomplishments this year (no more than 4)?
  2. What is my biggest strength that I want to exercise more of next year?  What opportunities do I see where this strength could be applied?  
  3. What are the two areas where I want to build greater capability as a manager or improve as a manager?   

Let the person know you plan to answer the same questions as you see it for them.  

When you meet, talk through each question together. 

As a foundation for your conversation, try working off the simple grid below created by Kim Scott, formerly with Google and Apple University.  Kim says her goal in “guidance” sessions is to create a B.S free zone, but at the same time a zone free from obnoxious jerks.  Her point - you’ve got to care personally about the person you are reviewing and second, you’ve got to have the courage to provide clear guidance and challenge the person to do the best work of their lives.  Kim had the good fortune of reporting to Sheryl Sandberg, now the CEO of Facebook, while Sheryl was still at Google. 

The best place to be on the grid is Radical Candor - “I care and I will provide direct, challenging feedback.”  Perhaps surprisingly, the second best place to be is Obnoxious Aggression.  In other words, people are better off to have clear, unfiltered feedback over no feedback at all, or even worse, having someone go around the individual’s back and undermine them (Manipulative Insincerity).  

I agree with Kim - the worst, most corrosive cultures I have ever participated in were either the  “too nice” culture where honest feedback is anathema or the “gossip culture” where people talk about you but not with you.  This goes not only for companies, but for churches, non-profits, and for families.  

Any healthy relationship demands people operate in the Radical Candor quadrant.   Of course, this applies on a daily basis and not just for a scheduled review.  Relationships infused with caring and candor will thrive and people, in turn, will commit their very best to you.  

So try these three simple questions with your direct reports and move into 2016 with clear expectations for the future.  The single most important thing you can provide is GUIDANCE to your people.  They long for it.  

If you really want to be radical, go a step further.  Ask the direct report to list out answers to the three questions thinking of you as the person receiving the guidance - how they see your greatest strength and the ideas they have about new capabilities the team or you as the CEO would benefit from building.  This not only flips the game but creates the opportunity for you to ask for guidance fearlessly and model the change you are looking for.  

This has proven to be a powerful exercise and very energizing for the people involved.   

I welcome comments, stories, and ways to make this post even better!  

P.S.  Shoutout to Grant Gochnauer with Vodori for making me aware of Kim Scott’s idea.