It’s Annual Performance Review time of year again for many organisations. APRs are amongst those conversations that everyone involved should welcome because of the value they bring. Instead, far too often people dread them. In fact, according to a 2019 Gallup report ‘only 14% of employees strongly agree their performance reviews inspire them to improve. In other words, if performance reviews were a drug, they would not meet FDA approval for efficacy.’

Now, if I were to ask you to list all the things that you should be doing as a leader to make sure you have effective APR conversations, you’d produce a comprehensive and accurate list. In fact, you’d probably stand a very strong chance of designing and running a really good workshop to help other leaders learn the steps of this merry dance.

And yet, chances are that you’d also have to face a painful truth – that the APR conversations you will have this year are more likely to fall into the less than inspirational category than they are into the ‘Wow, that was really worthwhile’ category. Even if you’re inclined to think that the ones you’ll carry out definitely represent the latter, how about conducting a brief APR on your own readiness to carry out meaningful reviews for the people you lead? If we, as leaders, are about to hold individuals in our teams to account, then what better place to start than holding ourselves to account first? 

Here are three key questions we should each ask ourselves as we prepare to review others’ performances.

1.   Have I consistently and rigorously provided the people I lead with the fundamentals they need to perform well?

Three years ago, we asked 500 individuals within client organisations what they needed from their leaders in order to perform well. Once we got past the generic statements – we want to be ‘inspired’, ‘coached’, ‘empowered’ – we found people need five key things:

  • To know what your expectations of them are
  • To have access to the resources to meet them
  • For you to listen to their views and needs when it comes to meeting them
  • To get your feedback so that they know when they are meeting your expectations
  • To get your feedback so that they know when they are not meeting them

These five fundamental needs apply to enabling C-suite leaders’ performances  as much as frontline team members. 

2.   Have I dealt appropriately with underperformance throughout the year?

Have you dealt with underperformance on a timely basis and taken the required steps to resolve this? Once again, failing to do this is prevalent at all levels in organisations. A 2015 McKinsey report highlighted that almost half of senior leaders said that their biggest regret in driving up performance was taking too long to move poor performers out of important roles, or even out of the organisation. In any year, and possibly in this year more than ever, the energy it takes to deal with underperformance can mean that leaders ignore this until it gets really bad. The problem is, as you know, this means that the APRs for these individuals become a messy business as you try to compensate for all the half-truths and ‘settling for’ that have taken place throughout the year.  And, on top of that, you have made it more difficult for the rest of the team you lead to perform at their best too.

3.   Have I scheduled – and held – one-to-ones regularly with each member of my team throughout the year and have those one-to-ones focussed on the right things?

One of the best ways to make APR conversations straightforward is to make sure that they are simply one of 12 one-to-one conversations that have taken place throughout the year. Sure, the APR conversation might last longer and may cover a longer timeframe too. Otherwise, however, the topics you are covering should be broadly similar to those that you have discussed at least monthly over the past 12 months. In my work with leaders, it is clear that introducing – and holding – regular one-to-ones quickly strengthens individual performance and saves everyone time. The primary pitfalls that stop one-to-ones having the desired effect are: assuming that all the ad hoc points of contact that take place negate the need for a formal one-to-one (they don’t), assuming that team meetings can be used in place of one-to-ones (they can’t), or using one-to-ones primarily as an opportunity for the leader to be updated on progress with tasks and projects (the focus should be on supporting the individual rather than updating the leader).

If you assess yourself in relation to each of the above points, where do you excel, where is your performance satisfactory and where is there room for improvement? 

Getting ready for APRs? Some self-assessment questions to ask yourself first