Performance reviews are an art. How do you make sure people are aligned on their performance, are not terribly afraid, and leave the meeting feeling motivated?

This is my first year as an engineering manager. With no prior experience in management, doing performance reviews where a jump into the deep end. With trial and error, I finished my first round of official performance reviews. In this blog post, I will share with you the mistakes I made, and the lessons I learned so you won’t have to.

1) Expectation management

One key component of performance reviews is expectation management. Your direct report should already be aware of things that could impact their performance. My rule of thumb is, if something in the performance review came as a surprise, you did not do a good job as a manager.

This prevents having those terrible conversations where you are potentially denying someone a raise or promotion, on some feedback they never heard before. Ideally, you want to address these kinds of issues in 1:1 meetings so your report has a fair chance to work on them.

2) Definitions

A good question to ask yourself is, are we talking about the same thing? Something I had to learn is that skills or competencies are not always the same for different people. If you have a report that you tell needs to improve their communication, do you actually have the same behavior in mind?

A common mistake is to not clarify what “communication” means. I’ve seen some examples where the manager and the report were on completely different sides, and found out too late. As the manager define what behavior you want to see. Elaborate with examples and situations. This prevents future disappointment when someone worked very hard on improving the wrong thing.

3) What are their priorities?

All people are different. As a manager, you will always have reports that are working hard on personal development, and others that need to be motivated to work on improving themselves, or just want to code. In my experience, those are also the people that will not put in a lot of effort to gather 360 feedback, and in general, will view the performance cycle as a chore.

For me, it was a pitfall to spend significantly more effort on my reports that put work into their development as well. While I do think that on some level you deserve more effort in 1:1’s for your goals if you actually have goals and take steps on them. But everyone still deserves a fair evaluation, and as their manager it’s your duty to make sure you have a fair picture of someones performance, even if they did not put in the effort.

Before you go

I hope you learned something from my mistakes and experiences. In short:

  • Manage expectations, there should be no surprises
  • Make improvements clear, are we talking about the same behavior?
  • Everyone deserves a fair performance review, even if they did not put in the effort.

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