March 21, 2023

You’re making performance reviews too complicated

I’ve never met a manager who loves perf review season”, and the way most companies run their perfomance reviews it’s pretty easy to understand why. As a company scales, there seems to be an irresistible urge to make performance reviews more and more complicated. I’ve seen processes where the HR team will spend three months defining values, then another month defining the process for reviewing an employee’s performance against those values, then another month training managers on the process, leading up to a month where the managers have to scramble to collect peer feedback, self-feedback, manager feedback, and then synthesize all that into a single document to deliver to a report.

I could go into why I think these processes develop, but we’re going to try and keep this post simple and uncynical. If you want my thoughts on why more complex processes happen, and how to reduce them at your work, email me at .

So what does a simple performance review process look like? Let’s start with some reasons we want to review a report’s performance. This is not an exhaustive list, but these are pretty common in my experience:

  • Your boss wants to know how a report is doing, and you want to give them something more than vibes”, you want a document to deliver
  • You want to give the report direction on where they stand and how to improve
  • You’re evaluating whether the report is ready to move to the next level, or get more compensation

(What’s not on this list is there are serious performance concerns”, ie: this report needs to go on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)”. A PIP is a form of performance review, but that’s a special case. In that case, you’re creating a very specific detailed plan to get a report out of a performance hole, and that’s a separate post.)

You could be writing a performance review for any or all of the above reasons, but knowing your audience will help you craft the right tone. Ok, enough preamble, what do I think are the necessary components of a good performance review? There’s three required and 1 optional components.

  1. Three things the report is doing or has done especially well
  2. Three areas for improvement
  3. The key takeaway
  4. (Optional) How the report is doing against their current level, ranked as one of Exceeding Expectations, Meeting Expectations, Not Meeting Expectations”

If this seems simple and straightforward, it’s supposed to be! If this seems daunting, I promise it’s not, and the rest of this post is going to be how to craft a review in this style. If you’re spending more than an hour per report crafting this document, then something has gone wrong.

Philip, what the hell, why am I spending so little time giving a report valuable feedback?” First, this is about writing the doc, not delivering it, that’s another post. Second, because you shouldn’t be crafting this from whole cloth when you sit down to write this review. This should be a summary of what you’ve already been talking about with your reports in their weekly one-on-ones, combined with what their peers say about them in their one-on-ones, and an occasional review of the leveling guide. So ideally, before you’re writing a performance review, you’ve cleared some pre-requisites:

  1. You’re having regular (usually weekly, definitely more than monthly) one-on-ones with the report where you already chat about performance
  2. You’re asking your other reports and peers what they think about the person you’re reviewing
  3. You’ve been doing this for at least three months.

That last one is important. If you’ve been managing someone for less than three months, you should straight-up refuse to write a documented performance review for them. It’s unfair to you and to them to evaluate their performance on less than three months of work.

If you don’t have these pre-requisites cleared, then your job is harder, because you now have to do a bunch of fact-finding to compile the report. This is the origin of peer feedback” sections for formal performance reviews — giving you, the manager, more data to compile the final report with. If you’re having regular one-on-ones with the whole team, peer feedback” is more a formality, because you already know that.

So, you’re going to look at your notes about the report from whatever time period you’re reviewing their performance against, and then list three things they did really well. This could be projects you know they personally made meaningful contributions to, or general behaviors you want to call out as excellent. Ie:

  1. Philip has solid technical acumen, and used that to drive forward the Google Analytics project
  2. Philip has demonstrated technical planning skills through the project plan around the Discovery Email
  3. Philip prioritizes mentorship and lifting up other members of the team

Next you highlight three areas of improvement:

  1. Philip needs to focus on time management, as demonstrated by the delay on the Giving Feedback” blog post
  2. Philip has room for improvement on cross-org relations, especially with sales
  3. Philip needs to expand his awareness around how his work fits into the overall company strategy, and how to take that strategy into account for his solutions.

Finally, the Key Takeaway. This is the most important section if you’re delivering this to a report for their benefit, and crucial for you to know what the report’s guiding light should be going forward. It’s the one sectence that should define conversations between you and the report over the next period.

Key Takeaway: Philip is a skilled technical operator, but should focus on cross-org impact impact to move forward in his career at Galaxy Brain.

That’s sections one, two, and three, let’s talk about the optional section four: performance rank against current level. This section is not optional if you’re reporting up to your boss, or you’re trying to advocate for a promotion for the report. This section should still not be hard! Ideally, you:

  1. Have an agreed-upon leveling guide for your company and team
  2. Have a spreadsheet for each report with all the leveling critera spelled out
  3. Regularly go through the spreadsheet for your report, and mark Exceeding expectations, Meeting expectations, Not meeting expectations” for each row

If you have this, then the fourth section of the review is just a summation of the spreadsheet. If you don’t have this, now is a great time to start! If you don’t have a levelling guide for your team or organization, you’re in a bit more of a pickle. (Btw, this is something Galaxy Brain can help with, and we’d love to work with you). If you have time to make a levelling guide before the performance review is due, great! You probably don’t, so for better or worse you need to go with comparisons between the report being reviewed and other reports at their level. Find the person who you think is setting the standard for the level, the person you would definitely mark as Exceeding expectations”. Then figure out what qualities tell you that. Try your hardest to not make this Vibes”, actually write down work qualities, and then compare the other reports at that level to those qualities.

This is going to be biased! There’s kinda no way around that until you get a real leveling guide in place, and this is where the feedback from their peers you’ve been collecting in one-on-ones becomes valuable. Your goal is to end up with one of Exceeding expectations, meeting expectations, not meeting expectations”, and you want it to be as fair as possible, but it will never be perfect and part of the job is making peace with that.

With all these sections done, you now have a review that is both informative and actionable, complimentary and supportively critical, and which ideally took you an hour tops because of the pre-work you put in.

There’s way more on the subject of measuring and managing performance that could be said, and we didn’t even cover delivering the review to the report but this hopefully gets you started. At Galaxy Brain, we help managers and organizations think better about the whole world of management, including performance, and we’d love to work with you.

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