A Future-focused Look Back: Using Annual Performance Reviews to Help Move Employees Forward

“To be as good as it can be, a team has to buy into what you as the coach are doing. They have to feel you’re a part of them and they’re a part of you” (Bobby Knight, Basketball Hall of Fame coach).

Being a good supervisor is like being a good coach: It’s equal parts inspiration, preparation and guiding execution, and communication is key.

The annual performance review is a time for leaders to have an achievement- and growth-focused conversation, identify successes, review opportunities, and set the stage for the upcoming year. While the manager creates the review, to maximize engagement and ensure positive outcomes, it’s imperative that the employee participate in the discussion.

Good managers are future-oriented, provide feedback on past performance, and proactively provide advice and strategies for achieving outstanding performance moving forward. Traditional performance review approaches focus on criticism, but that type of conversation can feel judgmental and punitive to the employee. When performance corrections are needed, good managers are clear and direct. They set expectations but also coach forward by highlighting what the employee can do differently in the future rather than focusing solely on past mistakes.

Leaders want employees to achieve their greatest potential, and employees come to work wanting to be their best and advance their skills. Trust forms between a manager and employee when both understand intent and competency, and clear, direct feedback enables both trust and goal achievement. In sports terms, a coach and player need to be working from the same playbook in order to win.

Preparing for a Review

Annual reviews are a great time to reflect on employees’ accomplishments and opportunities, cross-functional interactions, coaching, one-on-ones, and stretch experiences that enhanced their skills throughout the year. It is a summary of the past year, so nothing should be a surprise or create stress.

Successful organizations help employees develop S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely) goals in support of their mission, vision and operational excellence strategy. They follow through with a continuous coaching process where supervisors have ongoing check-ins; monitor day-to-day achievements; conduct future-focused conversations; collect, coach and celebrate peer and customer feedback; recognize achievements; and lead situationally to support effective one-on-ones.

Professional development plans are also often included in the performance review process. Good managers develop and update these plans with employees using a blended experiential, mentor, and classroom or online learning approach to enable skill development. These inputs prepare everyone for a future-oriented year-end conversation.

Plan the Narrative

It’s natural for workers to feel nervous when they meet with their managers at the end of the year. With that anxiety in mind, managers should be thoughtful and plan the narrative to be encouraging and purposeful and to inspire future momentum. Managers have the responsibility of channeling and inspiring employee performance and behavior.

Things for managers to consider measuring or highlighting when building a good performance narrative include:

Key performance indicators (KPIs): the employee’s most significant accomplishments or contributions.Specific examples of how the employee lived out company values.Top customer service experiences.How the employee elevated the performance of the team, office, company and/or industry.Areas of opportunity (“do-betters”).Accomplishments in the areas of professional development, workplace safety, and community and social impact.

The best way for managers to support their employees is to commit to being great coaches. Great manager-coaches talk about performance regularly and situationally, giving timely and useful feedback to their teams. Great employees, in turn, welcome feedback as a source of inspiration, motivation and validation. Together, they work as a team toward the same goal — and everyone wins.

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