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The 3 pillars of writing genuinely useful feedback and performance reviews

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Posted Feb. 22, 2022

Do performance reviews work? Polling and advisory group Gallup argues that they often don’t. According to Gallup’s research, “Only 14% of employees strongly agree their performance reviews inspire them to improve.” Worse, feedback and performance reviews can be so bad they can make performance worse one-third of the time.

What’s going on here? Gallup argues traditional, old-school approaches to employee reviews and feedback suffer from multi-level failures. They tend to be organized poorly, occur too infrequently to be useful, focus on the wrong things, create perverse incentives, and more. But it’s a single failing that we want to talk about today: the ways in which most performance reviews and feedback fail to just plain communicate.

In other words, most performance reviews don’t accurately convey critical information in a way that’s understandable, usable, and helpful for employees. So, what can you do to ensure performance reviews will lead to desired outcomes? Adhere to the following three pillars of good communication.

Clarity: employees should walk away enlightened, not confused.

You want the recipient of the feedback or performance review to be able to digest and absorb the information quickly, easily, and completely. Follow the “keep it simple, silly” (KISS) strategy when formulating input for employees. That means using precise, simple language to avoid misunderstandings and overcomplication.

Just say what you mean in a straightforward way. Avoid cliches, jargon, and abstractions like scores that try to compress a lot of meaning into a single number or word. In fact, The Harvard Business Reviewreports that employees tend to hate numerical scores; one study found that employees would literally rather be called “average” than rated a 3 on a 5-point scale.

Specificity: employees should know exactly what’s working, what needs more work, and where to go from here.

As we’ve written before, a lack of specificity leaves the author’s intent open to interpretation, which creates uncertainty and risk. You might not get what you want if your communication is imprecise. Even a loosely specific statement like “complete five tasks a day instead of four” may not be clear enough to drive improved performance if the reviewee doesn’t know what tasks to complete or how to do so.

Also, keep the feedback focused. Gallup has found that performance reviews that try to do too many things become unfocused and unhelpful. For example, if the review is used to offer advice on improving performance and to justify future employment action (like termination, promotion, or raises), it may be trying to do too much. The content of the review or feedback will be pulled in too many directions and become confusing and imprecise.

Tonality: employees should feel valued and heard, not demeaned, dismissed, or degraded.

The overall tone of the feedback can also have a dramatic impact on how it is absorbed and how it affects your relationship with the employee. Whether the tone is casual or formal, inquisitive or declaratory, or accusatory or collaborative can affect whether that worker actively engages with the feedback or follows it with no action. In general, the appropriate tone depends on context and circumstances. Always target the overall tone of the feedback to the situation to ensure the employee absorbs the feedback and puts it into practice to generate better business outcomes.

For more help communicating with employees (and everyone else), visit our catalog of courses to learn how we can help your organization to write more effectively.

The 3 pillars of writing genuinely useful feedback and performance reviews

Contact Hurley Write, Inc.

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Prefer to chat? Call us at 877-249-7483
Prefer to chat? Call us at 877-249-7483

(503 Reviews)