The COVID-19 pandemic may be over, but a different kind of epidemic has also been seemingly sweeping the world of work – an epidemic of employee demotivation.

Results of a recent Gallup poll found that just 36 per cent of staff are fully engaged at work, while 14 per cent are completely disengaged. This means that huge numbers of employees are not working to their fullest potential, or even motivated to go that extra mile when needed.

employees meeting performance review

If you’re a manager, this is obviously a huge problem…

Bearers of bad news?

As a manager, you’ll be the focal point for keeping staff motivated and engaged in their work. However, you could also be the unwitting cause of demotivation and disengagement – especially when staff appraisals or check-ins roll around.

It’s not uncommon for people to leave appraisals feeling demoralised rather than raring to go. This is especially true when it comes to the more difficult reviews where an employee has not had a great year, or not met key goals or objectives. It will fall to you as their manager to deliver the less-than-stellar feedback or even highlight potential shortcomings in an employee’s performance.

As a result, you could be left with an awkward situation of an employee being demotivated by the very person who’s normally there to support and encourage them. Not only can this lead to the employee becoming disengaged from their work, but also from you as their manager.

Performance reviews: taking the rough with the smooth

Whilst appraisals or check-ins can be tough to get through (especially if you manage a large team of people), they’re vital to supporting both employee development and wider personal and company objectives. So, as performance review season comes around, what can you do to make sure people come out of their appraisals fired up and enthusiastic about performing to their absolute best, and avoid that dreaded disengagement?

1. Do your homework

Now, we know appraisals will probably come near the top of the list of things you don’t want to do. After all, they take up valuable time, detract from the day job and can sometimes mean getting into difficult conversations you’d rather not have.

It’s also the case that employees can feel somewhat apathetic towards reviews, too; with our survey finding that 40% of employees found their current performance review process uncomfortable or simply a ‘box ticking’ exercise. However, appraisals or reviews can be one of the most important conversations you will have all year – so, if you turn up without having given the meeting any prior thought or preparation, it really will reinforce a potential opinion that they’re a waste of time!

Ensure you give review meetings or check-ins the time and attention they deserve. Allocate enough time to look back at your employee’s last review, identify the achievements that have happened since and think about what training and development the employee will need to take their career to the next level.

2. Check your body language

You may have hours upon hours of check-ins or reviews over the course of a day – but your body language shouldn’t convey you’re feeling tired, bored or would rather be doing something (anything) else.

Maintaining eye contact, smiling and giving employees your full attention are simple things you can do to maintain a positive atmosphere during an appraisal. If your employees can see you’re engaged and interested in what they have to say, they’ll be more likely to open up and talk about their aspirations, any issues they may be experiencing and what their hopes are for their career going forward.

Your body language is just as important if you’re carrying out any appraisals remotely. If you’re conducting a review over a video conference platform, always make sure your camera is on and you give your employees your full attention – just like a physical meeting.

3. Focus on the positives

Start any appraisal or performance review on a positive note by talking about what’s gone well, and how people can do more of it. Of course, you can’t sweep serious performance issues under the carpet, but if the whole conversation focuses around what people have done wrong, an employee will leave the meeting feeling dejected and that whatever they do is not good enough.

It’s important to recognise that most people actively want to please their managers and do a good job. If they’re performing under-par, there may well be underlying reasons, such as lack of training, personal or work-related stress or even unsupportive colleagues.

Make sure you acknowledge all the good things that your people have done, highlight their strengths and skills and think about ways they can make even more use of these going forward.

4. Tell a story

Tap into the feel-good factor by letting your people know what they have done is appreciated by others – and noticed by you. After all, there’s research out there that suggests people feel more motivated when they know their work is beneficial or helpful to others…

If we can see that others have benefited as a direct result of our efforts, it can spur us on to do more of the same. If you see a member of your team taking the time to coach a less experienced colleague through a task – or are aware they’ve gone outside the confines of their role to help another department – make sure you acknowledge or even reward it.

5. Give constructive feedback

If your employee’s performance hasn’t lived up to expectations, you need to give honest feedback, or nothing will change. It’s important, however, to think through how to do this constructively – and to understand how people typically react to criticism.

Neuroscience tells us that our brains see criticism as a threat. So, if you give an employee feedback they don’t want to hear, it’s likely they will immediately leap into defensive mode and convince themselves that they are right and you are wrong, even when that isn’t the case.

Negative feedback also stays with people for a long time, and as a result has a greater impact on people than the positive stuff. They remember what’s been said in detail and dwell on it, going over and over it again in their heads.

Make sure any criticism you give in a performance review is expressed clearly but sensitively.  This will help your people to understand exactly what they need to do differently; but also know that you’re there to support them in whatever they need to do to improve.

6. Record and follow through with next steps

Your employee’s reviews are of course a great opportunity to work with them to set attainable objectives – but ensuring they’re regularly checked-in on and readily visible can also be a fantastic motivator for your people. Ensure that you not only document your appraisals, but also, that you follow through with any agreed actions, such as training or development activities, and communicate them to your employees, too – giving them a chance to see how they’re doing for themselves.

The latest performance management HR systems can help you do this by providing a central place where information from performance reviews can be stored and accessed. Not only does this put vital information at your fingertips but also gives greater visibility to your employees on how they’re progressing against their objectives.

Lastly, you should also make it easy to revisit objectives or targets and adjust them if priorities change. After all, with many businesses in flux due to the ongoing effects of the Covid pandemic, an employee may not meet certain targets or objectives due to circumstances totally beyond their control – and that can be damaging to that all-important motivation.

Paul Bauer author image

Paul Bauer

Paul Bauer is the Head of Content at Cezanne HR. Based in the Utopia of Milton Keynes (his words, not ours!) he’s worked within the employee benefits, engagement and HR sectors for over four years. He's also earned multiple industry awards for his work - including a coveted Roses Creative Award.