Back to Blog Posts
Back to Blog Posts

How to Deliver Meaningful Performance Reviews

by John Zettler

January 14, 2016

If you’re like many Leaders out there, you’re dreading that it’s the annual performance review time. I get it, it’s a cumbersome and time consuming process, you feel the recipients never seem to take your feedback the right way and it simply creates anxiety for everyone involved. It doesn’t have to be that way! Here are some tips on how to do it in a meaningful way.

Not Once a Year, Rather All Year – One of the biggest challenges I see with performance reviews is that we see it as a process that happens once a year and we simply need to check the box. What I often hear is that people were surprised by the feedback I provided and if they were paying attention they shouldn’t be. While I appreciate their perspective, what part do Leaders own in this? My experience suggests we’re not good at having meaningful feedback conversations, both positive and constructive, throughout the year so when we tell them about a piece of work that wasn’t up to standard 6-months ago they get defensive. Put yourself in their shoes – it doesn’t feel good to find out way after the fact that you did something wrong.

Handshake Once you have this figured out the rest, it is simply an easy process to follow to ensure your feedback is meaningful and supports the end goal of appreciating the contributions of employees and helping them to continually develop. I’ll break it out into 3 parts:



1. Communicate the intent of the meeting in advance – Some of the anxiety comes from what can appear to be a surprise attack. A meeting that just pops up in the calendar without warning. Be transparent throughout the process. Let your teams know when it begins, what their role is (if you have self-evaluation) and prepare them for the meeting. Let them know when and where the meeting will be and if possible, meet in a neutral location. Provide a copy of the review in advance – Why? – Because the goal of the process is NO SURPRISES and if there is constructive feedback in it, it will give the employee the opportunity to remove the emotion.

2. Do your research – Evidence is key to providing meaningful reviews. We can’t just anecdotally say, “You aren’t reliable”, without providing evidence of when they weren’t reliable. I recommend you have a file for everyone and keep important information throughout the year that you can draw on. Also, ask yourself these questions:

a) What interactions have I had that I want to draw on – remember, no surprises?
b) Who else regularly interacts with this person that I can get information from?
c) What are some of the key accomplishments this person achieved?
d) How did they do towards achieving the goals set out in previous years?
e) What are their key development opportunities?
f) Note – if you use a 360 process some of these questions may be answered there.

3. Coach and mentor for success – This isn’t about you, it’s about how we get the employee to the next level of performance. Keep this in mind and think about how you can support, coach and mentor them towards that.

During the Meeting

1. Use your core Leadership skills – You’re a Leader and you have the skills to be effective at delivering a review – use them!

a) Open the meeting by building some rapport. It helps set the stage and puts everyone at ease.
b) Be a good listener. Talk less and listen more. This is about them. Also be careful on the non-verbal cues you’re sending.
c) Everyone on your team is unique so treat them that way. Don’t make blanket comments that make them feel like you’re saying the same thing to everyone. Personalize your feedback.

2. Focus on strengths – I know, you’re reading this thinking that you need to tell them where they still need to develop, and that’s right, but start with strengths. Let the employee talk about what they did well and what they achieved this year – your role is to keep that conversation going and keep them motivated to do so.

3. Provide specific and clear feedback that they can act on – Regardless of whether their performance exceeded, met or did not meet expectations it is imperative that feedback is grounded in specific examples.

4. Guide towards development – Guide is the operative word here. Where possible have the employee determine which areas he/she can improve on that will have the greatest impact on their role.

a) Provide your suggestions only after he/she has started the conversation.
b) Provide honest feedback on the top priorities from your perspective and be prepared to discuss why.
c) Avoid piling it on…for a couple reason. First it will seem demoralizing if there are too many areas to focus on and second, if you stretch them too thinly they won’t succeed and our goal is to have them succeed.

5. Set performance goals together – While much of the discussion is about what happened over the past year (or ½ year if you do semi-annual reviews), the goal is to develop and improve with an eye to the future. Developing clear goals towards what you expect to occur before the next meeting is critical to the success of the process.

a) Engage the employee for a plan moving forward
b) Coach/mentor them towards setting the proper priorities
c) Discuss what training and development would support their growth

6. Finish strong – Make sure you leave space for the employee to talk about what’s important to them. Ask them this question – “What does success look like for you over the next X months/year?” Then let them do the talking. Once they feel complete, finish with a positive inspirational close to motivate them.

After the Meeting

1. Follow up on the conversation(s) – Take notice of performance changes. Use them as an opportunity to reset expectations where required and provide positive feedback to keep them motivated.

2. Be a supportive coach and mentor – Your role as a Leader is to support the growth through coaching and mentoring. When you’re coaching, it’s about helping them come to the solutions on their own using powerful coaching questions – listening, encouraging and challenging them to find their own way is what it’s all about. When you’re mentoring, it’s about imparting your wisdom and experience.

Yes, it’s hard work and takes time to make the performance process meaningful, but I assure you it will be much less painless than the way many do it today. Remember, as Dale Carnegie says – “There’s only one way to get anybody to do anything. And, that is by making the other person want to do it.” Be a leader and coach who motivates and inspires employees to make a difference.

Best Success!

John Zettler, Director, Talent Strategy
& Development, Dale Carnegie Training®
Contact me at 905-826-7300 x 235 or jzettler@dalecarnegie.ca

Take a look at our previous Accelerated Talent Development Newsletters! 

NEW White Paper:
The 3 + 3 of Experience Innovation

We are excited to share with you our latest research project that we conducted over the past 6 months. We believe the trends and insights will help shape your thinking and priorities as it relates to the growth of your business, increasing the capacity of your talented workforce and culture.Experience Innovation 


Workplace Solutions: White Papers and Articles

As a global thought leader in workplace training and development Dale Carnegie Training produces white papers.  The white papers explore business issues and workplace solutions that are important to the success of organizations in the marketplace. Learn more.


About the Author

John Zettler brings almost 20 years of human resource experience to the challenge of better leadership we all share. He has invested his skills and energies and debated leadership with some of our country’s best leaders. Through this, he has refined a style of management that focuses on leadership conviction, authenticity and caring as the cornerstones of a more nuanced set of management skills we can all benefit from. Instead of balance in our life, he challenges us to a new style of work life blending that both gives us:1. The rush of seeing our people grow and prosper in a company that truly cares about them and their dreams.
2. The time and focus to also contribute the same level of passion to the needs of our families.

To hear more of his insights, click here to view his video as he discusses, “Leadership is Hard Work”.







Best practices in talent development are rapidly evolving and becoming increasingly critical to bottom line performance. If you would like to benchmark your performance in this area, and learn the tools and insights of Canada’s top talent development practitioners, please sign up for our bi-monthly newsletter on Accelerating Talent Development.


 Find out about local meetings and resources to help you succeed!




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *