Performance reviews are often dreaded by both managers and team members alike. For managers, it can be challenging to articulate specifically where employees are succeeding, and where they need to improve. For employees, receiving formal feedback about their performance can be stressful and anxiety-producing, even if they feel they’ve been completing the tasks of their role successfully.
Adding to the stress and anxiety of performance reviews is the fact that without specific, actionable feedback in the form of performance review comments, employees can be left feeling confused and unclear about just how, exactly, their manager thinks they are doing — and what they need to be doing going forward.
But much like performance reviews can be used to combat bias in the workplace, they can also be used to re-engage and reinvigorate employees who are eager for feedback and direction. The secret to doing so lies in writing highly effective performance review comments. Here’s how to do this.
Managers can help performance appraisal comments be better received, and therefore better acted upon and incorporated, by striking a positive tone, even while providing constructive feedback. Research by Gallup shows that employees who feel “inspired to improve or positive about knowing how to do their work better” after receiving their manager’s feedback are 3.9 times more likely to be engaged than employees who are left with negative feelings after receiving feedback.
Be sure that comments are comprehensive in terms of the scope of what’s reviewed — discuss past performance, but also share employee strengths and weaknesses, and identify opportunities for meaningful growth and development — as well as the timespan covered. “Comments should be comprehensive over the course of the time frame since the last review. Don’t just take a sampling of the last few months, because that could be skewed and unhelpful,” cautioned David Walter, head of HR for online electrician resource Electrician Mentor.
Ensuring a comprehensive review is an important step in avoiding recency bias, where only an employee’s most recent successes or failures are emphasized. Emily Goodson, CEO and founder of CultureSmart, an HR consultancy firm specializing in engagement and company culture, advised that managers keep notes for themselves throughout the quarter or review period to make it easier to write performance review comments when the time comes. “I recommend keeping a running file of feedback to look back on when filling out your performance review form. That way your feedback can be comprehensive and not biased by recency,” Goodson said.
Provide concrete examples for the observations you’re sharing to make your feedback more impactful. This is helpful for team members because it contextualizes the feedback you’re providing and illustrates to the employee that you pay attention to their contributions to the team and workplace.
Kelly Harris Perin, founder of Little Bites Coaching, a Durham-based executive coaching firm, said tying specific feedback to a past example is helpful as it leaves little room for misunderstanding. “Avoid generalizations and provide lots of details, so you can be 100% sure that the recipient understands your feedback accurately,” Perin said. “For example, instead of saying ‘too aggressive,’ share a specific example like, ‘In last week’s staff meeting, you interrupted Marla three times.’”
Goodson said that using the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) feedback model is an effective way to ensure your comments hold meaning for team members. “One of the most frustrating things for employees can be to receive performance review feedback comments that are vague,” she noted.
Vague comments can be easy to include in performance reviews, as it’s often the way we speak to each other in day-to-day interactions at work. Comments like “Great job,” or “You’re so good with clients,” are appropriate for an in-the-moment affirmation of a team member’s performance, but are not fleshed out enough for a formal review.
When employing the SBI model to shape feedback, managers are forced to explicitly describe each component of the feedback they’re providing — the situation in which the event happened; the behavior that was observed; and the manner in which this impacted a person, project, or circumstance. Rather than writing, “Lin’s excellent communication skills aid her team in success,” a manager using SBI might say, “When Lin regularly clarifies expectations for the timeline of deliverables to the team throughout the project, she creates accountability for individual members and encourages them to meet deadlines, which helps ensure on-time project completion.”
When done well, a performance review is a useful tool for employees. Not only do team members learn what they’ve done well and where they can improve, but they leave armed with actionable ideas as to how they can do so. The key to this latter piece is to present solutions, not problems.
“Ensure comments are constructive and not critical or demeaning,” stressed Lori Scherwin, certified professional coach and founder of executive coaching firm Strategize That. “For example, it’s not about good versus bad or right versus wrong, but rather about strengths and opportunities for development or actions for improvement.”
Timothy Wiedman, DBA, PHR, former professor of Management and Human Resources at Doane University, said offering suggestions is also about encouraging team members to consider their own resolutions, rather than just providing a prescriptive solution. “Constructive criticism that’s provided should also include a developmental suggestion to get subordinates thinking about how they might improve their performance,” Wiedman said.
If you’re going to write thoughtful and specific performance review comments, you’ll need to use the right words to effectively relay your message and meaning. Action verbs — words like “solve,” “establish,” and “eliminate” — are particularly impactful when appraising a team member’s performance, as they clearly articulate the behavior demonstrated. If you’ve run out of action verbs to use and are drawing a blank, refer to this comprehensive list compiled by Bowdoin College for ideas and inspiration.
Pre-formed, fill-in-the-blank phrases can be useful as you write your performance review comments, too. Some examples of this could be, “Improved production by X% through [specific task],” or, “Seeks creative alternatives such as [examples] that drove [results].” If you’re struggling to put into words what you’ve observed, resources like James E. Neal’s book Effective Phrases for Performance Appraisals, which provides many examples, could help. This HR-industry staple was first published in 1979 and has been updated in its subsequent editions to reflect the modern work environment.
Employing the right vocabulary also means avoiding using the wrong words. Managers should refrain from phrasing feedback in absolutes, with words like “always” and “never.” These words are rarely accurate, and phrases such as “You always…” or “You never…” can degrade the credibility of the rest of your performance review comments, not to mention your relationship with the team member. Rather, use specific examples — and precise words — to illustrate the message you’re trying to convey.
For instance, instead of writing, “Jaye is always late,” provide more accurate feedback such as, “Jaye has been late to the Thursday all-hands meeting at least five times since their last review. When Jaye joins the call late, the team must either use valuable time to recap what they missed in order to bring them up to speed, or Jaye misses critical team insight that informs how we’re prioritizing our current projects.”
One final note about verbiage: Performance review comments should never mention an employee’s age or gender, and certainly not their sexual orientation or religious affiliation. If you’re impressed with an employee’s performance given that they are a professional early in their career, say that rather than framing your feedback around their age, for example.
Some companies use performance review tools with a structured comments section, while others rely on a more free-form comment field. If your company is one of the latter, it’s helpful to add your own organization and structure to comments.
Tim Toherti, author of The Introvert’s Guide to Job Hunting and founder of HR consultancy firm Plotline Leadership, said the SWOT analysis, a business assessment tool that identifies strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, is useful for organizing performance review comments, too. “When commenting on a goal, specifically address what the employee did well (strengths) and what, if applicable they could do better (weaknesses),” Toherti said.
Toherti noted that opportunities are the employee’s unexplored strengths, “which could be skills that the person either isn’t aware of or doesn’t give themself enough credit for,” he said. Threats are patterns of behavior that if left unaddressed could impede an employee in progressing in their career, such as consistently failing to meet deadlines or shying away from increased responsibility.
His final piece of advice with the SWOT analysis is to skip the fluff. “Evey goal does not need all four SWOT elements. Comment only on what is most relevant,” Toherti said.
Performance reviews needn’t induce anxiety or dread for managers or employees. Nor do they have to be a rote, check-the-box activity that leaves all parties feeling as though they’ve wasted their time. With a little bit of extra time and effort, you can write performance review comments that re-energize team members and inspire their continued success at your company. Use specific language and provide examples to contextualize your feedback, and remember that highlighting solutions in place of focusing on problems is a sign of a strong, effective manager.