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How to Avoid the “Too Nice” Performance Reviews


Most managers are required to sit down with their employees once a year and have that dreaded conversation: the performance review. For many employees, this conversation is awkward, forced, and just generally unpleasant for both people on either side of the desk (or computer).

Sometimes this discomfort with giving feedback can lead to managers erring on the side of pleasantry (aka being “too nice”) to counteract the overall unpleasant meeting. In fact, one study found that 69% of people try to avoid giving negative information, and 37% won’t give critical feedback at all.

This is obviously problematic – how can employees then recognize and correct behaviours if they are not told that they are doing something wrong? How can you properly compensate your A players when a high percentage of your employees are rated as A players? How can you provide the right training and provide advice on career trajectories when performance evaluations are just inaccurate?

If you are a HR professional, this problem probably isn’t new to you. Luckily there are a few tactics that you can implement that can help make performance reviews be more objective.

1) Educate your employees

There is an art and science in giving and receiving feedback. Most people acknowledge the importance of giving corrective feedback – they just don’t know how to give it. To counteract this uncertainty, you will need to educate your employees. Setting up training workshops on what is effective feedback, how to give and receive effective feedback, and why effective feedback is so important can help everyone be on the same page when it comes to these performance conversations. (If you need some help on how to give good feedback, check out these examples of employee feedback).

You should also educate your workforce on common unconscious biases that can be highly prevalent in performance reviews – particularly the once-a-year traditional reviews. For example, the central tendency bias leads humans to lump everyone as ‘average’. This can lead to overlook high performers and underperforming employees, who may not receive the proper feedback and training to improve their performance. Educating your workforce on these biases and setting up processes to help prevent them, such as more frequent documentation and more regular feedback conversations – see point #6 in this blog, can help counteract these biases.

2) Require examples of performance

Providing examples is a great way to demonstrate the performance of the employee. Ensure that managers are offering 2-3 examples to validate their assessment on their direct reports. You can also provide a minimum character or word requirement in performance evaluations to avoid the simple “good job” and “keep up the great work” feedback comments.

3) Include 360 reviews and self-reviews

360 reviews can give a better overview of an employee’s performance. It also helps identify potential blind spots that managers may have. You can also include a self-review for employees. Most employees are aware if they are underperforming. An assessment can reveal some interesting insights into the employee as well as what they see as necessary areas to improve.

For the manager, having their direct reports conduct self-reviews offer a couple benefits: (i) they can illuminate how the employee views themselves in the context of the team as well as the organization and (ii) they can highlight any disagreements/misalignment between the manager and the employee.

If you are looking for simple performance review software, check out Pavestep!

4) Make an ‘improvement section’ mandatory

Making an improvement section mandatory will push managers to consider the gaps in their talent. This isn’t a bad thing – even if you have an A player that continuously exceeds expectations, they are not perfect. An improvement section can also inspire a growth mindset in your workforce and help motivate your talent.

5) Rethink your rating system

A numerical rating system can sometimes make it difficult for managers to assign the right rating. Most managers have an allergic reaction when they have to rate an employee 1, 2, or 3 out of 5. Consider switching to a semi-quantitative system – e.g. ‘needs improvement, adequate, effective, highly effective, exceeds expectations’. Rating a good employee as ‘effective’ versus a 3 (out of 5) might encourage a manager to give more accurate ratings of their employees. Regardless of which method your organization chooses to use, ensure that there are clear descriptions for each of the ratings.

What about forced rankings?

Forced rankings have been controversial for a while – forcing managers to rank their best and worst employees does not often accurately reflect employees performance and can be demotivating for employees. If your manager said “You had a good year, but the whole team did good, and I can’t give all the team members the top ranking,” would that inspire you to perform at your best? Probably not.

Eliminating the need to fit the team into a bell-curve shape and changing to a semi-quantitative scale can help managers give more honest feedback.

6) Increase the frequency of feedback conversations

If you are doing quarterly, bi-annual, or annual reviews, consider switching to a system that incorporates more feedback conversations. Performance evaluations should be an aggregation of all the feedback an employee has had throughout the year – having 20 feedback data points between a manager and employee will give a better representation of the employee’s performance. Having all these feedback conversations documented will also help streamline performance reviews.

Check out Pavestep if you are interested to know more about how our performance management solution helps document and analyze feedback so you can make better talent decisions.

Have any other suggestions to help avoid the “too nice” performance review? Let us know!

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