The beginning of the year heralds the arrival in many organisations of the annual round of performance reviews.

As a busy manager, it’s easy to regard it as a time-consuming, bureaucratic exercise that takes your attention away from activates that can add real business value. But if you want to get the best possible performance out of your team, it’s important to make sure you’re hitting the right note with appraisals.

This is underlined by recent research from the CIPD, which suggests that not having a performance review at all is better for employees’ motivation and job satisfaction than having a poorly managed one, even if they get a pay rise!*

So what can you do to make sure the performance reviews you have with your team are both meaningful and motivational?

Be prepared

Preparation on both sides is the key to having a meaningful appraisal. As a manager, the trick is to find a way to balance the needs of the business with the individual aspirations of each member of your team.

  • Make sure you know what you can – and can’t – promise. There’s no point in agreeing with someone that they’d benefit from formal training on X, Y or Z, if you know that the business case isn’t there. It’s much better to explore alternatives, such as mentoring or shadowing, so expectations are realistic from the very start.
  • Gather information about the person you are about to review. Chat with colleagues that have worked with them, look back at previous appraisals, and check what training and development opportunities they’ve had. Think about what achievements you want to acknowledge, and what development needs you may want to discuss with your direct report.

It’s important to encourage individuals to think about the meeting beforehand too, so that they come prepared to talk about any issues they may have and how they’d like to develop going forward. Many companies ask employees and managers to complete the appraisal form before the review meeting so that the performance conversation can be much more focused and considered.

Without this kind of preparation, appraisals can easily slip into box-ticking exercises where everyone is left feeling vaguely dissatisfied and nothing much changes as a result.

Focus on what motivates

Latest thinking from neuroscience suggests it’s important to help people develop a ‘growth mindset’ – where they believe they have the ability to learn, develop and get better at what they do.

Research from the US in 2013 showed that while ‘novices’ preferred feedback that focused on their strengths, more experienced workers were actually hungry for the kind of feedback that focused on their mistakes and gave them a steer on how they could improve.

People are much more likely to be enthusiastic about growth or change if they have been involved in the decision-making process on priorities or action. Make sure any goals you set are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) and reviewed regularly. Business is changing rapidly, and what may be an important goal today could very quickly change. Neuroscience also stresses the importance of regular, just-in-time feedback for raising performance levels. People are much more likely to remain motivated and to stretch themselves if they have regular, informal check-ins with their boss as well as the more formal annual review.

Look to the future

A performance management review is a great opportunity to make sure everyone is focused on business goals and objectives for the year ahead. It provides a forum where the manager and their direct report can work together to establish clarity about what’s expected, eliminate misunderstandings about what is and isn’t important, and ensure people are focusing their attention on work that is aligned to corporate priorities. This ‘forward looking’ approach is much more useful than the more conventional ‘looking back at the past year’ that tends to happen in appraisals; it means managers can be more agile, adjusting individual or team goals if corporate priorities suddenly change.

Talk about career aspirations

Do you know what your team members want from their career and how they see their future panning out? Managers sometimes shy away from having honest and constructive career conversations with their people – often because they feel they won’t be able to provide the progression or skills development that people want. But you can’t assume you know what people’s aspirations are – and if you don’t have the conversation you definitely won’t be able to uncover any hidden talents they may be harbouring, or help them move forward in a way that suits both the individual and the business. Performance reviews are a great time to discuss where your people see themselves heading, how you could make best use of their talents, and how the business can support them going forward. People are more likely to stick around if they feel they can talk openly about their ambitions, and that the business will do its best to support them in their goals. Performance management can be handled with HR systems – reminding you of upcoming performance reviews and keeping records.

Act on what’s been agreed

Make sure that any action or development agreed during an appraisal does actually happen. There’s nothing more demotivating for an employee than picking up the appraisal form to see that the course or secondment they’d been promised a year ago still hasn’t happened. Trust will be eroded and they will feel as if the encouragement you have given them about their developing their career is nothing more than empty words. Performance Management software systems can help to ensure that what’s been agreed actually happens by making information much more visible and easier to act on.

*CIPD Employee Outlook, Winter 2014/15

You may be interested in reading: Performance management – are your processes fit for purpose?

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.