Performance Reviews

How to Write More Effective Performance Review Comments

March 27, 2023
March 21, 2024
Catherine Tansey and Lyssa Test
Lattice Team

While performance reviews aim to accomplish a lot of things, one of their most important objectives is to allow managers to share feedback with employees. But like any form of feedback, performance review comments must be carefully written to ensure this vital guidance lands well with employees and gives them a clear understanding of what they need to be doing going forward.

Effective performance review comments not only recognize employee strengths and accomplishments but also share helpful advice employees can use to grow and improve. Here’s how to write more effective performance review comments that can re-engage and reinvigorate employees who are eager for feedback and direction. 

Key Takeaways:

  • Share specific feedback and provide examples.
  • Balance complimentary and constructive feedback.
  • Leverage action verbs for clearer feedback.
  • Lean into observation-backed feedback.

6 Steps for Writing Effective Performance Review Comments

1. Be comprehensive.

When it comes to giving strong employee evaluations, managers should aim to give a holistic recap of their employees’ efforts. Comprehensive performance review comments should discuss more than just past performance. They should also touch on:

  • Employee strengths and accomplishments
  • Weaknesses and areas for improvement
  • Employees’ short- and long-term career goals
  • Opportunities for meaningful growth and development

To identify powerful examples and accomplishments to add color to review comments, managers can also ask themselves the following questions:

  • What is the employee good at?
  • How does the employee support other team members?
  • What improvements have they made since starting/since their last review?

2. Embrace positivity.

A little positivity can go a long way. 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. And because employee engagement can drive higher performance, framing feedback in a positive way is good for employees and your company.

To help performance appraisal comments be better received, and therefore better acted upon and incorporated, managers should aim to deliver their notes with a positive tone, even while providing constructive feedback. One way to maintain a positive tone is by highlighting an employee’s strengths before suggesting where they could stand to improve.

Constructive feedback should always be a discussion, so be sure to allow employees to share their perspective.

3. Share specific feedback and provide examples.

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.

This is even more important when writing a comment for an employee whose behavior needs improvement. Managers should pull specific examples of times the employee’s work or actions did not meet performance standards. But sharing constructive feedback should always be a discussion, so be sure to allow employees to share their perspective and try to come to an agreement on the best path forward together. 

4. Include 360-degree feedback.

Just having one person weigh in on an individual’s performance can introduce bias. By incorporating examples and praise from self, peer, and manager reviews, you can better understand the full extent of an employee’s workplace abilities and share more detailed and specific feedback. Sharing 360-degree feedback is a great way to:

  • Eliminate blind spots managers may have in their understanding of employee performance
  • Collect balanced, unbiased feedback from individuals who work alongside the employee every day
  • Improve working relationships and teamwork

While collecting 360-degree feedback can be a time-consuming process, Lattice Performance makes it easy to gather and share self-assessments and peer reviews in-platform, so managers can write more accurate and holistic reviews. 

5. Pair constructive feedback with developmental suggestions.

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. But that doesn’t mean you need to do all the problem-solving for your employees.

After their reviews, managers should hold follow-up conversations with their direct reports to help employees create achievable and measurable professional development goals that incorporate the feedback they received. This helps hold employees accountable and ensure feedback remains top of mind year-round, not just during the performance review process. 

When setting goals, remind your employees to use objectives and key results (OKRs), SMART goals, or whatever internal goal-setting framework your organization uses. Then, encourage managers to periodically check in with their employees on goal progress and to share continuous feedback throughout the review cycle. 

6. Stay organized with the right solution.

Some companies rely on free-form comment fields stored in Google Docs, while others use a performance management solution, like Lattice Performance, that offers a structured comments section. Your business can create a standardized performance review template to ensure every manager provides a helpful and comprehensive performance evaluation for their employees. With these templates, your organization can add criteria against which managers should evaluate their teams, like:

  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Communication skills
  • Competencies
  • Company value-embodiment

Lattice also reduces comment-writing friction by giving managers access to all of their employee information in one platform. In just a few clicks, a manager can view employee updates, praise, peer feedback, and performance goals from the review period so they can effortlessly track their direct reports’ accomplishments and improvement areas. That way, managers can write truly effective performance review content that inspires employee growth.

The Do’s of Writing Effective Performance Review Comments

There are just a few more things you should be aware of when writing performance review comments. We’ve outlined a few of our must-know tips below: 

1. Find balance with your feedback. 

Giving feedback is all about balance. Giving too much critical feedback can cause your employees to shut down and be less receptive to what you have to say. On the other hand, being overly complimentary without covering areas of improvement can frustrate employees rather than encourage them. Be sure to share what your employee excels in, as well as where they have room to grow — this is key to having good developmental conversations

Overly complimentary comment:Well-balanced comment:
“We don’t know what we’d do without Xander. Their performance is amazing — no need to change a thing. They should just keep doing what they’re doing!” “Xander is a valuable member of this team, and I was so impressed that they were able to reach 104% quota achievement for Q3! While I appreciate how autonomous Xander is, I do need more visibility into their work. This can help me be a better manager and advocate for them as we enter the next promotion cycle.”

2. Leverage the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI)™ feedback model.

Developed by the Center for Creative Leadership, the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI)™ feedback model is an effective way to ensure your comments hold meaning for team members as it helps you explicitly describe each component of the feedback you’re providing:

  1. The situation in which the event happened
  2. The behavior that was observed
  3. The manner in which this impacted a person, project, or circumstance

Here’s what this can look like in practice: 

Feedback without the SBI model:Feedback using the SBI model:
“Lin’s excellent communication skills aid her team in success.”“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.”

Writing feedback with the SBI model can help managers articulate exactly what they value about their employees’ job performance, and the added detail can help employees understand what specific actions are working well.

The focus of your feedback shouldn’t be about good versus bad...but rather about opportunities for development.

3. Focus on the future.

When discussing an employee’s areas of improvement, remind them these are not weaknesses, but rather developmental opportunities. For example, say a manager is frustrated they can’t often reach an employee because they don’t reply to their Slack messages or emails for hours. After bringing up a few examples when this was an issue, the manager could suggest replacing an undesirable behavior with a new one: 

Present-focused feedback:Forward-looking feedback:
“I can rarely reach Rebecca when she doesn’t check Slack or email for hours. This makes it hard for the team and me to get vital answers from her and move forward on projects.” “It can be hard to reach Rebecca during the workday, although she often replies at the beginning and end of the workday. I’d like her to check her Slack and email messages throughout the day, rather than at 9 AM and 5 PM. That way, my colleagues and I can more easily get a hold of her and get the information we need to overcome roadblocks more quickly.”

The focus of your feedback shouldn’t be about good versus bad or right versus wrong, but rather about opportunities for development and actions for improvement.

4. Lean on action verbs.

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 by Bowdoin College for ideas and inspiration.

Positive action verbs:Negative action verbs:
Fails to
Is unwilling to

You can also use fill-in-the-blank performance review phrases to help you write review comments, too. Some examples are: 

  • Improved [business area] by X% through [specific task]
  • Seeks creative alternatives such as [examples] that drove [results]
  • Led [project] resulting in [business outcome]

If you’re struggling to put into words what you’ve observed, resources like James E. Neal Jr.’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.

What to Avoid When Writing Performance Review Comments

To write thoughtful review comments that effectively convey your meaning, there are a few common review pitfalls you’ll want to avoid. Here’s what to steer clear of:

1. Leave employee demographics out of it.

However well-intentioned, statements that mention demographics can be microaggressions and can create a hostile work environment for your employees. Performance review comments should never mention an employee’s:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race
  • Sexual orientation
  • Nationality
  • Religious affiliation

If you’re impressed with an employee’s overall performance given that they are a professional early in their career, highlight their specific achievements, rather than framing your feedback around their age, for example. You’ll always want to ensure you use your employees' correct pronouns in your comments, as well. 

2. Avoid absolutes like “always” and “never.”

Managers should refrain from phrasing feedback in absolutes, with words like “always” and “never.” Aside from being rarely accurate, these phrases can undermine 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.

Absolute language:Observation-based language:
“Jaye is always late and has no time management skills.”“Jaye has been late to our Thursday team 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. I would like to discuss a way to improve their punctuality moving forward.”

Whereas the statement on the left is vague, generalized, and inaccurate, the observation-based comment is detailed, filled with descriptive examples, accurate, and clearly explains the impact of the employee’s actions. This makes it a much more effective feedback statement. 

3. Don’t use hearsay feedback.

Your praise or constructive criticism should always be rooted in observations, never hearsay. Starting a sentence with “I’ve heard…” or “Another colleague told me…” can immediately make employees think you trust someone else’s word over their own. This can harm employee trust and rapport. Instead, only mention things you’ve seen or experienced first-hand. 

Hearsay feedback:Observation-based feedback:
“Our colleague Susan has told me that Greg often cuts her off and talks over her in meetings. She feels like Greg monopolizes the conversation and doesn’t allow other teammates to share their opinions.” “I’ve noticed that Greg often interrupts and talks over his colleagues in team meetings. While I know he’s excited to share his opinions and has great things to share, Greg’s zealousness can make others feel like he doesn’t value what they have to say.”
Comments should take the individual’s performance into account for the entire review period — not just the last few weeks.

4. Avoid giving in to recency bias.

Recency bias refers to the human tendency to rely on recent, rather than historical, observations when drawing conclusions. Come review season, this could overemphasize an employee’s most recent successes or failures in self-evaluations, as well as peer and manager feedback. 

For example, if an otherwise stellar employee has been late to a team meeting the last few weeks, recency bias can push their manager to overlook the last six months of outstanding performance and contributions and cause them to focus solely on the individual’s tardiness. This could jeopardize their eligibility for a promotion or raise. 

Comment with recency bias:Well-balanced, comprehensive comment:
“Maria stumbled through her presentation at the last two all-hands meetings and failed to answer a few of the questions posed to her. It was clear she wasn’t knowledgeable on the subject matter she presented.”“Maria is a top performer on the team who often shows up to team meetings prepared, polished, and ready to share her marketing expertise. That said, I know she was disappointed by her last two presentations at the company’s all-hands meetings and felt her nerves got the best of her. If Maria can master the art of public speaking, she will be unstoppable.”

Review comments should take the individual’s performance into account for the entire review period — not just the last few weeks or months. Emily Goodson, a New York-based workplace culture advisor, recommends 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.

5. Don’t forget to involve employees.

Identifying development opportunities shouldn’t fall solely on managers. Including employees in this process can ensure their buy-in and boost the likelihood that they implement this feedback and progress in their roles. 

Offering suggestions is also about encouraging team members to consider their own resolutions, rather than just providing a prescriptive solution. For example, say an employee is rather quiet in meetings and their manager explains that he wishes the employee would speak up and share their point of view more frequently. Instead of the manager telling the employee how to improve, they can ask, “How can I help you speak up more in meetings?” 

Together, the employee and their manager can decide on a mutually beneficial plan, like giving the employee a few extra moments to gather and share their thoughts. The manager could also specifically call on that employee by name so they don't have to fight for air time with more boisterous colleagues. Deciding on the best path forward together can strengthen employee-manager relationships and make employees feel like active participants in their own growth. 

Performance reviews don’t need to be a check-the-box activity that leaves all parties feeling like they’ve wasted their time. With a little bit of extra time and effort, managers can write performance review comments that re-energize team members and inspire their continued success at your company. 

For more guidance on how to run successful performance reviews and encourage professional development goal-setting, schedule a demo with Lattice today.