A friend and colleague of mine, Jim, came into my office one day and plopped into a chair across from me at my desk. "What's up?" I asked him. "Worst review ever," he said dejectedly.

"Yours?" I asked him curiously. Jim was a top performer in our company--someone we all looked up to and admired for his commitment and his drive. "No--the review I just gave. It was a disaster. I made him cry."

I immediately started thinking about the possibilities of what could have transpired. Had Jim provided enough regular feedback to set this review up to succeed? Did his feedback lack a direct or constructive quality, blurring the intended message? Or was Jim too direct--too blunt--making his employee feel like Jim was not on his side?

So I asked Jim what went wrong, and his response made me want to cry. "He was surprised. He didn't realize where he was falling short. He felt this was the first time he was hearing that he needed to improve."

One of the most important parts of being a leader is giving comprehensive, thoughtful reviews. It is something leaders should welcome, and it should matter to them. In many ways, how a review transpires is a direct reflection of the company culture. It is hard, important work, and doing it effectively requires a lot of preparation. "No surprises" is just one of the key tenets that we emphasize in our coaching at Hospitality Quotient. When you think about the components of giving a successful review, keep these ideas in mind.

1. Request a self-review.

When preparing for the review, ask employees to assess themselves first, and use that self-review while preparing your own thoughts. Often, we know what we need to improve--and inviting your employees to express that awareness makes it easier for you, as the leader, to reflect it back. Asking for a self-assessment can also expose areas where you and your team may be misaligned on expectations. If your employees think they are excelling in an area where you believe they need improvement, you may need to clarify your standards and priorities for the team. In their self-assessment, ask your employees what accomplishment they were most proud of. It's a great way to understand what motivates them.

2. No surprises.

If you are consistent in providing feedback to your team members all year long, they're unlikely to feel blind-sided in their annual review. Feedback should be ongoing and supportive, and as a leader it is a prerequisite that should be embraced. If you are holding back on key messages because you are uncomfortable giving the feedback, you can't expect improvements--and furthermore, you'll be withholding information that allows your employees to grow personally and professionally. Address areas of improvement throughout the year--and be sure to keep providing positive feedback all year long as well. By the time you get to the annual review, it should be a recap of all the conversations you had throughout the year, with some time to assess how you can move forward and continually improve.

3. One size fits one.

Not everyone prefers to receive feedback the same way. In keeping with a one-size-fits-one culture, leaders should ask employees how they like to receive feedback early on in the relationship. Some people like a direct, almost blunt message, others like to hear specific examples, and some need to hear feedback and then go away to process it before they can address next steps. Knowing your team members and adapting to their styles will make the feedback easier both to give and to receive. Whatever the preferred delivery form may be, leaders should be prepared to have a dialogue in the style that is most comfortable for the employee.

4. Identify themes.

Get the conversation started by highlighting key themes that sum up the overall takeaways of the review. You can then go into detail by discussing specific examples that highlight each theme. If your company conducts 360 reviews, collecting feedback from multiple team members, these overarching themes should be drawn from those opinions. If your review is based on just your working relationship, summarize your thoughts to create these themes and use them to lead the dialogue.

5. Set goals.

It always feels good to end the review with actionable next steps to set the tone for the year ahead. After reviewing last year, think about how the lessons learned will apply in the new year. Identity both short- and long-term goals, and make sure at least one is a personal development goal for the employee. Let the employee discuss where they'd like to be by next year, and help them come up with realistic benchmarks to help them get there.

6. Ask for feedback on you.

For an employee, a review is not only a time to receive feedback but also an important time to feel heard. As you consider your employees' aspirations, it's important to ask yourself--and them--how you can better support them in achieving their goals. Specifically, ask how you can be a more valuable support system for them through your leadership. Your job is to pave the way for their success.

The more you give feedback, the better you'll get at it, and the more productive these check-ins will be for both you and your employees. Taking time to open those one-size-fits-one channels of communication with your team will improve engagement and result in better overall performance. No more tears!

 

Published on: Feb 12, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.