First things first – it isn’t just you. You aren’t the first manager to mess up a performance review, and you certainly won’t be the last. The important thing now is how you recover. It’s time to step back from the situation and start understanding why performance reviews go wrong. Then, you must work out what you need to do next to re-build the relationship and make sure it goes better next time.

In this practical guide for managers, we’re not going to sell you the benefits of performance management. (Right now, that isn’t what you need). Instead, you’ll find advice on how to recover the relationship with your employee, because that should be your priority. We’ll cover:

  • Reasons performance reviews go wrong
  • Steps you can take to help yourself
  • How to support your team going forward

Why performance reviews go wrong

Performance reviews don’t often result in shouting, screaming and people storming out. But, when they do, it’s typically for one of two reasons:

  1. The individual isn’t expecting the feedback you give and think it’s unfair
  2. They have something else going on and the pressure of a review becomes too much for them to handle

Either way, you’re left looking like ‘bad cop’ as your team member disappears out the meeting room door.

It’s all about relationships

Whether their exit was down to option one or two, it’s likely the root cause of the outburst is the same – your current relationship with that person needs work.

Think about it. When you have a great relationship, you speak to that person regularly. You know what’s going on in their world. And it’s more likely you’ll notice when they’re having a tough time. You might even suggest delaying their performance review, opting to check in with them over coffee instead.

With more distant relationships, you tend to focus on task. You look for common ground, which is often the work someone’s doing. You avoid talking about the person themselves, and, in some cases, may steer clear of talking to them altogether.

That lack of connection makes it hard for you to identify concerns and provide feedback in a way that they’ll take well.  (Cue a performance review that feels incredibly formal and increased risk of a sharp exit from the employee).

Setting the foundations for future appraisals

It isn’t just employees who struggle when a performance review goes wrong. It affects you too. Doubt creeps in about your own abilities, your confidence falls, and you feel judged for upsetting the individual in question. But there are things you can do to create stronger relationships with your team members (and improve your own skills at the same time):

Start by connecting with your team member

The first thing you’re going to change is to stop avoiding the subject. You need regular (ideally weekly) check-ins to help you get to know your team. But, and this is important, these aren’t one-way chats. They’re two-way interactions requiring honesty from both sides.

Sometimes you’ll have a sit-down conversation. Other times, you’ll see the updates on task completion come directly into their performance review comments.

You need to start being proactive. So, reflect on the dreadful discussion from yesterday, and arrange a conversation. Acknowledge you handled the situation badly. Learn from your mistakes. Ask what was going on for your team member. And, this is the really tough one, ask them for feedback to help you manage the situation better next time.

Develop better communication skills to avoid performance reviews going wrong

There’s a good chance you were promoted into your management role with little or no training. So it isn’t surprising you find conducting performance reviews difficult. Take the opportunity to reflect on that performance review that went wrong and identify the skills you need for next time.

Check your learning platform to see what training’s available to support you. Re-visit any slides and notes from previous sessions you’ve attended. Find other courses to further develop your management skills. Then, get support from your manager or Human Resources, and pursue those actions over the coming weeks and months.

Set clear expectations for the future

A key reason performance reviews go wrong is because someone doesn’t agree with your feedback. When that’s the case, check if they were clear on the expectations. Make sure you understand how to set great Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). Agree key timelines and actions with your team members. Then link them back to the business vision, so everyone’s heading in the same direction.

While this doesn’t guarantee individuals will always agree with your comments, having clear targets and timelines makes it a much easier conversation to have.

Don’t just rely on your own opinion

It’s easy to get caught in the “I think” trap. But this creates two issues:

  1. If the individual doesn’t feel like you have a great relationship, they may disregard your comments
  2. You become blinkered by one or two of their actions, creating bias in your feedback

A good way to reduce this risk is to seek 360-degree feedback. Take input from multiple sources – colleagues, managers, their own team members, even clients. Build a more holistic picture of how they’re performing and look for views that are counter to your own. Present a rounder view of how the individual is performing so you can draw on the positives and support any development areas.

How check-ins stop performance reviews going wrong

When you speak to your team regularly, you’re better able to identify when they’re struggling or under stress. Having clear expectations of both your role, as a manager, and theirs aids communication. And holding great performance reviews becomes a whole lot easier.

Using weekly check-ins, there are no hidden surprises (good or bad). You get weekly updates on how people are performing against their OKRs, and you can offer support if they’re veering off track. A better relationship helps you spot external pressures, so you can adjust your response. But, if reading people isn’t your strength, tools like sentiment insights help you support your team more effectively.

Performance appraisals that happen as a one-off event, often seem to create conflict. They largely reflect on what’s literally just happened or hark back to the ‘one-big-thing’ from ten months ago. And that’s what leads to performance reviews that go wrong.

So, eliminate unnecessary conflict and set yourself up right from the start.