Career Coach: Be SMART about performance reviews

By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, June 21, 2010

With the University of Maryland's fiscal year coming to a close at the end of June, we just finished up this year's round of performance reviews. The university shares this task with the rest of the business world, and it seems that regardless of the type of organization, both managers and their employees dread the performance feedback session.


There often is too much reliance on one-way communication from the manager, who simply tells the employee about his or her performance. Managers often fail to establish what we call "SMART" goals -- specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic or reasonable, and time-bound, or with a clear endpoint.

If done correctly, performance reviews can be of tremendous benefit to an organization. The session offers opportunities for employees to become aware of where they need to make changes or maintain behavior, helps them develop accurate self-images, can improve communication between managers and employees, and can facilitate mutual problem-solving. It also reinforces and supports a learning culture by allowing managers to communicate what is expected of employees and clarify any misunderstandings. It further enables managers to assess the contribution of each employee toward the organization's goals, assists employees in career planning, and may sustain or enhance employee motivation and desire for continuous improvement.

There are some things you can do to ensure you are effectively providing feedback:

-- Plan ahead: Pick the right time and place to give feedback and prepare for the meeting. Avoid giving feedback if you are angry, busy or tired. Provide detailed, written feedback and check to ensure the validity of your statements.

-- Be specific: Limit your feedback to specific skills the employee can do something about. Focus on tasks and behaviors, not personalities, and use clear and recent examples. Describe what the person is doing and the effect the person is having. Focus on giving specific, observable, job-related, behavioral feedback vs. feedback based on inferences or "personality." After asking for the employee's views, review his or her strengths and areas of past performance, as well as weaknesses or areas of unsatisfactory performance. Discuss and set goals; have a time line for improvement and follow-up.

-- Make it a conversation: Start the meeting with some small talk and set an agenda. Make sure there is two-way communication and give the employee a voice by developing an atmosphere of trust in which he or she will perceive the feedback as helpful. Ask questions and encourage the other person to ask questions. Do not rush or interrupt the employee. Listen to learn, not just to respond, and show empathy for what the employee is saying. Make sure you are actively engaged -- make eye contact, nod, reflect on what he or she is saying and paraphrase to show you understand. Avoid "yes, but" statements, and use "I" rather than "you" when making a point. Establish rapport and try to identify what "energizes" the employee -- identify his or her values. Ask for ideas and suggestions. Thank the person for taking the time to share the feedback with you.

-- Be tactful: Avoid "saving up" criticisms to deliver all at once. Think about the feedback you are providing from the other person's point of view, and make sure your comments are intended to help. Don't be threatening or judgmental, certainly don't use sarcasm to prove your point and don't be defensive. Take responsibility for shared problems. Give feedback when the recipient is ready to accept it. The goal is to establish a motivating climate and focus on maintaining and enhancing an employee's self-esteem. Do this by always providing positive as well as negative feedback to motivate the employee.

-- Be sensitive: Help the employee understand the feedback you give, especially when the person is upset. Listen patiently to your employee's needs. Use understandable language for giving directions or providing corrective feedback. Use nonverbal cues -- smiles, nods, eye contact -- as encouragement and speak directly and with feeling, based on trust. Make sure your comments aren't more than the person can handle, especially if the feedback is negative. Be sure to separate people from the problems. Before closing the meeting, make sure the employee has had a chance to provide input and ask questions. Schedule follow-up meetings if needed.

Remember, when managing others, everything you do makes a difference. Realize that your ability to coach and provide meaningful feedback to others will improve with practice and preparation.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist. She can be reached at

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