How the squeeze the max out of performance reviews

If you’re not spending every ounce of your energy to revamp how you give annual performance reviews to direct reports, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

Why? Performance reviews are an inevitable part of the job that can make or break successful teams.

Done well, they’ll help propel employees’ performance and turn big trouble spots into super-powers. If done poorly, which happens 90 percent of the time, staffers might start to drag their feet to work and look for greener pastures.

Don’t stress, though.

You’re a quick scroll-down away from learning how to get the max ROI on annual performance reviews and ensure your people don’t leave the meeting disappointed.

Excavate vital data points

I loved my performance review with my manager. I feel more aligned, motivated, and excited than I’ve ever been.

That’s what you want your direct reports to say when they exit the room.

Here’s how to make it a reality:

Three-four weeks before the chat, start to collect 360-degree data on your direct report and their performance in the role. It’ll help back up your claims with hard evidence and make it harder for the employee to push back.

Collect peer feedback

First, it’s a good idea to gather feedback from the direct report’s peers, namely four-five people they work closely with.

These are the people that know the ins and outs of the person’s job, and their input is highly valuable.

Below are three questions to ask peers (you can do it via email):

  1. Name two-three things *John* should start doing? Why?
  2. What are two-three things *John* should continue doing? Why?
  3. Is there anything *John* should stop doing? Could you please name two-three things?

Ask to self assess their core responsibilities

Next, engage the direct report in self-evaluation to get their perspective.

One of the ways to go about it is to set up a spreadsheet and share it with the employee. Then input the direct report’s core responsibilities into the spreadsheet and ask them to self-evaluate their skills on a scale of one to three.

In the screengrab above, the scale means:

  • One: I’m not good at this, and I can’t improve on my own = I need a lot of coaching and support over the next cycle.
  • Two: I’m doing quite OK, but I could definitely use some advice on how to improve.
  • Three: I’m killing it.

In parallel, email your report two questions:

  1. What are your biggest four-six wins in this cycle?
  2. What are your career goals for the next two years?

Evaluate for performance and areas for improvement

Lastly, grab a coffee and list the person’s annual accomplishments and, most importantly, areas for improvement—no more than two—for the next cycle to complement your data.

Keep in mind that detailing a direct report’s areas for improvement is core to a performance review. Otherwise, you can throw your hopes to get the max ROI from them atop a blazing fire.

Below are two questions to guide you:

  1. What are two-three things that hold the person back?
  2. Can you see clear themes that emerge from the self-review and peer feedback?

Once you have robust data at your fingertips, you can start to act upon it.

Kick things into action

Sweaty palms time.

You’re about to have a performance review chat with a direct report.

No matter if you’re a first-time manager or a seasoned pro, performance reviews can be tough for everyone.


If you have a robust framework in place, things can be much easier.

First, book at least an hour for the annual performance review as early as you can to let the direct report know it’s coming.

Next, when the day of the conversation comes, email the staffer a doc outlining your overall rating, core accomplishments, peer feedback, and development areas. It’ll give the person time to process things.

Once you’ve taken care of the prep work, it’s time to start the conversation.

Below are four rapid-fire tips to sequence it:

  • Start the chat by asking how the person is doing to loosen them up.
  • Share the meeting’s agenda and underscore that it’s OK for the direct report to fire off questions as the conversation unwraps.
  • Walk through the doc and zero in on the big points, particularly those in development areas. As you go through them, offer actionable suggestions for improvement and what killing it would look like.
  • Leave at least 10 minutes for a Q&A to address the remaining questions.

Have a follow-up action plan in place

Nightmare scenario.

You delivered a stellar performance review to a less-than-stellar direct report.

You’d spent hours excavating data points and prepping for the talk, where you shared lots of actionable feedback and suggestions for improvement.

Two months later, the performance needle didn’t move, and it felt like the conversation never happened.

But why?!

In short, you didn’t put aside time to check if the employee is on track. As a result, the message was lost.

But—there’s a way to flip things around:

Based on the performance review doc, come up with an action plan that details exact steps (with deadlines), the direct report needs to take to improve in their weak spots.

Also, ensure the direct report writes down what they need from you. For example, they might need you to send them off to a workshop, purchase a book, or pair them with a top performer for coaching.

Lastly, schedule monthly check-in meetings with the direct report to make sure you’re moving in the right direction.

So—what do you think?

There you have it. A whopping six robust tips for managers on how to make the most of annual performance reviews.


What’s your experience with performance reviews? Do you still use them at your organization, or do you think they are dead?

Let me know in the comments. I’d love to chat!

Max Woolf is a career expert at Zety. He’s passionate about helping people land their dream jobs through the expert career industry coverage. In his spare time, Max enjoys biking and traveling to European countries. You can hit him up on LinkedIn.