It's been a tough year for performance reviews. Headlines urge us to kill them, nix them, blow them up. Studies reveal alarming stats, like the fact that 95 percent of managers are dissatisfied with their performance-management systems. (Nearly as good a barometer: there are now over 300 Dilbert strips about performance reviews.)

So how can we build a feedback mechanism that works--for the business and for the employee? There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are some basic, universal building blocks of effective reviews. Here are six I've found to be most important.

1. Authentic Effort From the Manager

When an employee sits down for a performance meeting with you, she will be listening closely to everything you say, and how you say it, for clues about her value to the company.

If you rush through the review, making observations on the fly and not backing them up, the employee will notice. Your lack of effort broadcasts the message loud and clear: You are not important.

Few managers put performance reviews at the top of their "favorite things" lists, but if you don't prepare for them and aren't present in them, you might as well skip them--because they will do more harm than good.

2. Corrective Feedback

Giving feedback is uncomfortable, and there's one tried-and-true way to cover up the discomfort: praise, praise, praise the employee. Researchers have found that employee appraisals cluster on the positive side of the spectrum. Won't criticizing the employee make them resentful? many bosses wonder.

But if you skip the part where you tell the employee what he could be doing better, you're missing an opportunity to give him something he actually wants: According to a study cited in Harvard Business Review, 57 percent of employees prefer corrective feedback to praise, and a full 72 percent believe their performance would improve if their manager gave them more corrective feedback.

3. Clear Expectations for the Next Period

The quality of a performance review hinges on the expectations set in the preceding review. If you and the employee haven't previously agreed what she should be working on--and how her success will be measured--you're essentially saying, "Please, step into my office for some random observations."

It seems elementary, doesn't it? Yet Gallup reports that only 12 percent of employees "strongly agree" that their boss helps them set priorities at work. And only 13 percent say that their manager helps them set performance goals.

In your next set of reviews, buck that trend by clarifying expectations. (Here's the good news: You can get an easy start by asking the employee to outline those expectations herself. Unless you're supervising an assembly line, she probably has a clearer idea of what they should be than you do.)

4. Line of Sight

What do most clock-watchers have in common? They don't know much about the big picture of the company, or see how it applies to them.

In reviews, give your employees line of sight by explaining what the broader team is working toward and how they can further that aim. If, for example, the CEO is leading a big push for customer- centricity, a manager might explain to a customer-care associate how each of his interactions furthers the CEO's goal.

That worker will feel more involved and motivated, and likely be spurred to find innovative ways to please customers. He'll be less like a cog in the machine, more like a strategic partner in the business.

5. A Discussion of the Future

It's a leader's job to always look to the future, even in performance reviews. Don't just rehash the past; for every comment you have, explain the implication for the future. The more you can offer coaching and "feedforward" (as Marshall Goldsmith would call it) the better:

  • "You pulled this off really well. Here's how you might keep that momentum going."
  • "This didn't go so well. Here's how we might approach it next month."

Touch on the employee's own future as well. Is he happy with where the role is taking him? What new skills and relationships does he want to develop? Show that you care about your employee not as "human capital" but as a human.

6. More Frequency, Plus Regular Check-Ins

As companies ditch legacy performance-management processes in droves, we seem to be settling on a quarterly cadence for formal reviews (rather than annual).

I agree that this is a much better rhythm for delivering structured feedback to employees. It seems paradoxical to fix a loathed corporate ritual by doing it more often, but increased frequency improves the quality. Do you remember what any one of your employees was working on nine months ago--much less have anything insightful to say about it?

Aim to meet with each of your reports once every 90 days for formal feedback and priority-setting; then, supplement reviews with regular check-ins; weekly or biweekly works best for most leaders I've worked with. Simply touch on the employee's goals, ask what they need help with, and offer any insight or coaching you have. These ongoing recalibrations help you and your team stay cohesive and nimble as the outside world shifts.

Old-school reviews are on their last gasp, and I hope these guidelines will help you as we move forward--toward feedback that's regular, relevant, and useful.

Published on: Dec 23, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.