Performance Review: What Really Works

Al Goodman, Instructor, Brandman University School of Extended Education

Performance Review: What Really Works

In baseball and soccer we get immediate feedback on our performance. You quickly see the number of runs scored or goals made in a game. Unfortunately, it isn’t the same for most of us in our professional lives. While you’re in the game, your coach is observing and assessing every play and letting you know how you did and what to do next time. But in the working world, it could take weeks or months to find out how you’re performing on the job; sometimes, that feedback comes too little or too late. Don’t wait to dump all your feedback in one review, coach your employees all year long.

Continuous research indicates that employees want timely feedback from their supervisor regarding their job performance. A Gallup study shows that a supervisor has heavy influence on an individual’s performance – easily improving or deteriorating it. During stable economic times, we hear employees quitting their boss, not their company.

For the majority of organizations, the only time they are providing feedback to their staff is in an annual performance review. This means it could be a long time before an employee learns how well he or she is doing on the job.

Unfortunately, most managers and employees alike are not thrilled with this annual process.  I recall one human resource vice president being extremely frustrated with supervisors not taking full responsibility and telling the truth to their employees, stating, “Don’t tell me they need more training. We have invested a fortune in training these managers. They just need to stand up to the plate and do their job.”  

This topic came up again during a lunch at a Chicago restaurant. The VP said to his staff, “This honest feedback requirement isn’t that difficult. Let’s take the quality of service we are experiencing from our server. If I don’t like the food I can send it back or give her a poor tip.” The compensation manager reflected for a moment and responded, “Don, this analogy is not so simple. If you don’t like the server’s behavior after you tell her the problem you can stop going to this restaurant or next time request a different server. For the supervisors at work, they are hesitant to tell it all because they feel like they have to live with this employee.  It’s a relationship. The supervisor feels if she is too critical, it will impact all the other good performance, so it’s easier living with it. It’s sort of like being married.”

In July of 2014, I received a newsletter from two management consulting associates, Tom Stevens and John Barnes at INM in Tennessee, citing this very issue:     

“The Executive Management Program has been in operation for 32 years.  In those 32 years, more than 9,500 managers have attended classes.  These managers have come from 65 countries and 665 companies.  They have been evaluated by more than 49,000 direct reports through the use of 360 degree surveys.  This survey has 60 questions and 10 categories. Each attendee manager is evaluated by their direct reports, supervisor and co-workers.  The managers also evaluate themselves.  A most interesting predictability has occurred in every single class.  Two of the management categories have always been rated by the direct reports as the most negative: developing and performing.  These results are for the entire class, not an individual manager.”

(Barnes and Stevens 2014, 2)

Employers grappling with how and when it’s best to offer feedback to employees must ask themselves some important questions: 1) How do you create an environment in the workplace where it is safe and accepted practice to provide accurate feedback, when it’s needed most?  2) Should you place all our eggs in one basket with an annual performance review that may ask supervisors and employees to share more feedback than they can handle and feel good about at that one time?  

Annual performance reviews are necessary, but they should not become a surprise or a psychic overload event.  From the research conducted by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman in “First Break All the Rules,” we know what the world’s greatest managers do to give the most effective feedback to their direct reports.  This work is based on Gallup’s in-depth interviews with 80,000 managers and 400 companies.  The golden nuggets they found for performance management were:

  • The routine is simple; they do not want complex appraisal schemes.  A simple process to communicate with employees during the entire year. 
  • Frequent interaction between the manager and the employee.  More than one or two meetings per year.  The secret to helping an employee excel lies in the details: individual recognition needs, relationship needs, particular identified goals and talents/non talents.
  • A routine that is focused on the future. Spend the first ten minutes talking about past performance and the rest of the meeting setting goals and expectations for the future.  Use this opportunity to discuss potential positive outcomes ahead!
  • The employee keeps track of his own performance and accountabilities though self-discovery.

(Buckingham and Coffman 1999)

This all boils down to the original question about employee’s desire for honest feedback and providing it in way of respect and not damaging self-esteem. Remember our sports analogy? It’s up to employers, managers and supervisors (much like a coach) to share the score with their direct reports; let them know what they’re doing right and what they can do better.  However, this is not always as simple in business. While supervisors understand the need for quality feedback outside of annual reviews, the pressure of “driving for results” today, usually trumps this “soft stuff.”  And yet, who can argue with the common-sense conclusion from the Buckingham and Coffman research that ongoing feedback in a relationship is much better than having to tell it all in an annual sit down review?   

Think about this: The 1980’s classic, “The One Minute Manager,” by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, is still the foundation for many current corporate performance appraisal programs. I thought it was brilliant in 1982 and I continue to admire it.  I have just re-read it 34 years later and the book is all the more relevant today.  In their book, Blanchard and Spencer lay the foundation for any credible performance review program inclusive of goal setting, honest manager feedback, individual ownership, self-discipline, focus on performance and being respectful.  They also spend time talking about the importance of immediate feedback.  All the essentials are contained in the book and it is a quick read!  

Today, we have some fundamental advantages over the managers from the 1980s, for example, technology and tools that better link supervisors and employees.  Is there some way we can put the heart into the technology and combine all the wisdom we have learned, as mentioned above?

Most of us are in contact with our supervisors via email, texting or a quick voicemail to let them know of the latest news or an immediate issue of importance.   There are certainly many opportunities where we could leverage the connection between supervisor and employee to work on a 30 to 90-day plan for something significant for the individual employee and for the business bottom line.   There are numerous online resources that facilitate the communication between an employee and supervisor and some resources provide for a third party, like a coach.  The starting point is to get the employee and supervisor to agree to a simple game plan with a commitment from each party over the short time period.  This type of process works great for on-boarding new employees to insure they stay on track with their new responsibilities.  It also works well for a current employee who just received a promotion and has a new set of responsibilities.  Finally, I have seen firsthand how this process can significantly help an employee who has all the right technical skills but needs a little extra help from the boss managing people.  Those types of ongoing dialogues can facilitate much higher level performance.  

The critical learning here is that it is a significant mistake to view a performance review process as a one-time event where twelve months of feedback is communicated in a 60-minute meeting.  Research tells us the common sense approach is that you are much better providing ongoing feedback in smaller chunks; and provide those comments while the information is still fresh and relevant to the quarter or time period. 

The most difficult aspect of managing people, and one of the most overlooked, is giving performance feedback.  There is a fear of providing straight and honest feedback.  It may be more of a psychological avoidance, but most managers do not like doing this part of their job.  The best solution is creating an ongoing relationship between supervisor and employee.  In this special relationship the supervisor can share the good and the opportunity for improvement with their direct reports.  Most employees appreciate a boss that is genuine.  Think of the people in any level of management you most admire?   

In all of these examples, honest and sincere communication from the supervisor is very powerful for higher performance.   It demonstrates authentic concern and honest feedback for the individual employee’s growth and/or development.  It really can be a combination of face to face and electronic communication.  The best managers understand they will get the return on recognition when they invest an extra minute of time each week communicating with their most important assets. 

This special relationship between supervisor and employee is your opportunity to provide ongoing feedback and connect the heart with technology!  Let’s face it, managing people is not always easy.  While some supervisors are naturals at managing and are able to excel, the majority of us must rely on what we learned from our coaches: time, experience and good mentorship.  


Barnes, John, and Tom Stevens. “Thirty-Two Years of Predictability.” INM Newsletter 9, no. 7 (July 1, 2014).

Buckingham, Marcus, and Curt Coffman. First Break All the Rules. 1st ed. Simon & Schuster, 1999.   

Copyright: 2014 Albert James Associates, L.L.C.


About the Author

Al Goodman is an instructor with Brandman University’s School of Extended Education and president of Albert James Associates, LLC  a firm whose primary focus is in the area of facilitating management development and maximizing individual potential in the work place.  Goodman has over 25 years of global corporate experience working for companies where he developed an expertise and passion for maximizing human resource development.  He’s now taken his collective experiences, lessons learned and best practices and created an innovative methodology called ROR-Return On Recognition®  The ROR web-based  program represents a breakthrough in coaching that can help make a significant difference in an employee’s engagement and performance that results in more value by ensuring predictable business outcomes are met.