I was told that I had "exceeded expectations" across the board. I should have been delighted. Instead I was demotivated, confused and more than a little angry. While the anger and confusion died down within a week, I remained demotivated for some time. I also walked away with little actionable learning. If the two main levers of management are motivationand training, it is fair to say this performance review was a failure.

This is the story of the worst performance review I've received and what I and other managers can learn to avoid the same mistakes.

The Review Itself

My performance review was with a junior partner and my immediate manager, a senior associate. As I walked into my review meeting we had some small talk- I worked with both of my reviewers every day and we had a good relationship. As I sat down I received my written review, quickly scanning it for my overall score. I was delighted.

This delight was soon mixed with some confusion as I read the soft skills section. I was praised for my ability to manage conference calls, but I was also told to work on my tone when talking to clients. I immediately had questions. At my level, I only spoke to clients when I was managing procedural conference calls. How could I be doing this well and need to work on my tone? I was also confused as to why I hadn't received this feedback before the meeting. This was a fairly common task in my day-to-day role, I had even managed a similar call earlier that week after the review would have been written. Finally, there were no specific examples of where my tone had been wrong or what I could do to improve it.

I finished reading. There was nothing more of note. In fact, my only action point at the end of the review document was to work on my tone when talking to clients. So this was a natural place to start our discussion.

My confusion was soon joined by anger. My first question was quickly answered: they both felt that I managed the calls well but they had received feedback from someone else that they had been surprised by my tone on a call given my level of seniority (or lack thereof).

Who had given this feedback? When was this call? How can I do better when I don't know what I did wrong? I wasn't given adequate answers to any of these questions. I was afraid I had received negative feedback from a client (why else would they use this feedback over their own judgment). They couldn't tell me who gave the feedback, only that they were senior to me.

Could I have specifics? No, I should just take more care with my tone.

It should have been a small point of feedback. Yet, it was my only feedback. It was incomplete and that made it unfair. The result was that I spent the rest of the week investigating internally and ended up finding out about the specific feedback. It had come from a lawyer who was on secondment at a client. They had joined a call I had lead over a month earlier. I didn't recall much about the call, so (as far as I was concerned at the time) there was nothing much I could work. This was supposed to be my focus for improvement. In the emotional state of my younger self: why bother?

Lessons for anyone in a management role

I think it's clear from the story above that I didn't handle the feedback perfectly (far from it). I was young, new to the workplace and became emotional about something that I should have taken in my stride. I could have committed to learn from the feedback I did receive, no matter how limited it was.

Yet, as managers, we should expect that surprise and negative feedback may be taken emotionally (especially by less experienced staff). We should be prepared and we should be ready to answer questions. More than any of this, the negative consequences of my review (the wasted time investigating and the demotivation in the following months) could have been simply avoided had the 3 lessons below been followed.

lesson 1 - provide feedback continuously

Continuous feedback and improvement is a core aspect of almost all management practices. Whether you look at the agile principles, lean methodology or management classics such as those by Peter Drucker or Andy Grove, the same focus on continuously improving performance is apparent. This message is also in modern business bestsellers: Measure What Matters teaches us that to positively influence performance, coaching and feedback need to happen continuously, not be saved up for a scheduled review timeline.

"At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly." - Agile Principle 12 (continuous improvement for teams)

By the time I received feedback at my performance review, the call it was all about had left my memory. As a result, I had no opportunity to discuss specifics or learn how I could have handled the situation better. I had also missed the opportunity to apply the feedback in the multiple conference calls I had lead in the intervening period.

This isn't to say that longer term performance reviews should be abandoned, only that the type of feedback they contain should be substantively different. In preparing for a performance review as a manager you have an opportunity to identify trends and messages the run through multiple individual bits of feedback. You can also filter the number of messages you are providing (more on this in lesson 2) and review longer term objectives. You may still have a surprising message to give at the performance review, but it is unlikely it will relate to a single incident.

lesson 2 - provide actionable feedback

"You did this badly" is a telling off. "You did this well" is praise. Neither are examples of actionable feedback as they are both backwards looking.

The specific feedback I received was that I should be careful of my tone when talking to clients. While this was potentially forward looking, it was too vague to be actionable. When I asked for more details, I didn't receive any (possibly because they didn't have any).

The positive feedback also wasn't actionable. This is, in fact, more challenging but no less important. What can they do to improve their performance further or even maintain their current performance? There is always room to improve but be specific and make clear that you are providing action points to help them become a superstar.

You should also be aware of the number of points of feedback you give. While my review had too few points of feedback (lending too much weight to what should have been a minor point), the more common problem with performance reviews is choosing areas of focus. An average performer may be average across the board, but you need to choose 2 or 3 main areas to focus your feedback so as not to overwhelm and to allow them to remember the feedback while on the job. Sometimes the feedback form works against you by suggesting 5+ areas for specific review. If this is the case, you need to make clear both in the summary sections and in the review meeting where the focus for improvement should lie for the coming period.

lesson 3 - provide written feedback before any face to face session

This is a more minor point, but one that I have found helpful. Andy Groves explores this in High Output Management, identifying that there are pros and cons to each before concluding that written reviews should be provided first. His reasons are enlightening:

"He can then read the whole thing privately and digest it. He can react or overreact and look at the "messages" again. By the time the two of you get together, he will be much more prepared, both emotionally and rationally" - High Output Management

Reviews always have the potential to be emotional, but they are important for the rational outcomes they achieve. A better, more rational discussion will occur in a review meeting if the person being reviewed has had an opportunity to digest the feedback being given.

*** Have you had any positive or negative experiences in performance reviews that you've learnt from? Please leave a comment and start a conversation ***