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How to Have Better Performance Evaluation Conversations

It’s that time of the year we all dread.

No, not fighting the crowds at shopping malls or maxing out the credit cards with over-indulgent holiday spending. I’m talking about the bane of managers and employees everywhere — year-end performance evaluations.

Let’s face it. Most managers dislike giving performance evaluations and most employees hate receiving them. And giving feedback can be even more difficult when it involves negative information. But performance evaluations let employees know how their performance measures up to job expectations. They offer an opportunity to revisit old goals and set new ones. And most important, they ensure that employees have the information they need to continue to be productive contributors to the organization.

Ideally, performance feedback should be given regularly throughout the year. This helps to keep employees on track with achieving their goals and identify small problems before they become big ones. But too often, these important conversations get lost in the day-to-day struggle to get the product out the door on time. When that happens, the only recourse is one big end-of-year performance evaluation that both sides dread.

To conduct better performance evaluations while reducing the anxiety that often accompanies them, try the following:

The Right Environment.

  • Establish a time, date and location for the discussion and carve it in stone or just make darn sure it is in your PDA. Show up on time and ask the employee to do the same.
  • Select a setting that enhances discussion and fosters open communication. Make sure the location is private, especially for difficult discussions.
  • Minimize physical barriers, such as your desk. If holding the conversation in an office, move to the same side of the desk or to adjacent corners at a table.
  • Take the meeting seriously. Don’t allow interruptions and don’t try to work on something else at the same time.


  • Come prepared. Have your major points of feedback already in mind and documented.
  • Keep the discussion centered on the data rather than on emotions or opinions.
  • Don’t let employees divert the discussion into irrelevant tangents. Gently bring the discussion back on track as soon as they occur.
  • Focus on the desired outcome from the feedback. Don’t get stuck in past behavior.
  • When discussing a performance issue, clearly define the problem and explain why it is a problem. Then concentrate on the solution.


  • Be present. If you appear distracted or disinterested, it sends a silent (but loud) message to the employee that you don’t consider the discussion to be important.
  • Establish a tone that reflects the feedback. For example, a light-hearted feeling may be appropriate for a congratulatory talk, but would be inappropriate for a serious performance problem.
  • In difficult situations, display empathy while maintaining directness and objectivity.


  • Performance evaluation involves a dialog, not a monolog. Allow plenty of time for two-way discussion.
  • Allow the employee to present his or her side of the issue, especially when discussing performance problems. Stay open to hearing new information that may change your perspective.
  • Actively listen. When the employee finishes speaking, restate what he or she just said and check for understanding.


  • Agree on concrete outcomes. Make sure both sides have a common understanding about any action items coming out of the meeting.
  • To address any problems and more fully support superior performance, be clear on what will be done, by when, and by whom.
  • Document all action items in writing.

And one golden rule to keep in mind: annual performance conversations are never a time for surprises! If you have a message to deliver that is going to surprise an employee, it means you have not done your job throughout the year and you really need to think about that as a leader or manager.

The more often you have these types of conversations, the less painful they get. If you find yourself dreading year-end evaluations, make a point to have at least one per quarter with every employee. Or better still, one per month. You’ll get more comfortable giving feedback. Your employees will appreciate knowing where they stand. And both of you will have one less thing to stress about.

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