Performance Conversations Need Not Be Riddled With Anxiety

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

October 28, 2022

Performance review season is upon us. It's a time that for too many employees - and even managers for that matter - feels a bit like a trip to the dentist. But that's in large part because many organizations still cling to once or twice per year reviews rather than having regular conversations between supervisors and their subordinates.

"Performance conversations don't have to be riddled with anxiety," said Joey Price, CEO of the Baltimore-based Jumpstart HR on a recent XpertHR webinar. According to Price, infrequent conversations not only are bad for morale, but they don't really get the most out of your employees either.

Organizations benefit tangibly from improved relationships between managers and employees in the form of less turnover, stronger engagement and more consistent alignment. But as a poll of webinar attendees showed, limiting performance conversations to an annual review makes those benefits less likely to occur.

When asked, what do you think drives poor performance evaluation at work, HR professionals cited the following factors:

  • 42.9% Unclear goals;
  • 28.6% Poor evaluation structure;
  • 26.2% Lack of training; and
  • 19% Lack of development.
Webinar poll 1

"It's a sad state of affairs for performance management," said Price. "When I look at unclear goals leading the way.. it makes me think we don't spend enough time thinking about what is it that we're really trying to accomplish here."

When people leave their jobs for opportunities elsewhere for growth and development, according to Price, sometimes it has to do with being under managers who didn't know how to develop talent because they didn't know how to set clear goals.

Regular conversations can go a long way towards alleviating that lack of clarity. And that way, Price said, managers can lead in a more agile fashion because objectives are constantly changing. Without these conversations, managers and direct reports may not be on the same page as to what was the most important priority from the previous year's review.

"There's so much that we have to be paying attention to on a daily basis, on a weekly basis, that to just have conversations on an annual basis doesn't really give justice to getting the most of your team's performance," Price said.

Most importantly, employees almost always prefer to know where they stand rather than being in the dark. One need look no further than another webinar poll we took when asking attendees what type of feedback conversation could their organization improve upon (with the caveat that they could vote for more than one):

  • 52.9% Instant feedback;
  • 36.8% Retrospective (Retros)/Planning sessions;
  • 29.4% Huddles, standups; and
  • 27.9% Scheduled meetings.
Webinar poll 2

Sometimes instant feedback can be difficult because teams are balancing different projects and the pace of work is busy. But the feedback should be honest, often and thorough. Following up on the feedback also is a way for managers to show their genuine investment in an employee's success.

Conversely, there are some common biases that can sometimes creep in that managers must strive to avoid in feedback conversations, according to Price, including

  • Recency bias where you pay excessive attention to the last thing an employee did - whether it be good or bad;
  • Primacy bias where you focus on one skill but ignore the position's other aspects;
  • Halo and horn bias where your judgment is clouded by giving a "halo" to people you like and "horns" to those you don't like but whom might be good performers;
  • Central tendency bias when you give everyone an average rating regardless of their individual performance; and
  • Confirmation bias where you've developed a perspective from past events and judge someone based on one thing they did wrong and miss the four things they did right.

But there is much less chance for these biases to occur when regular performance conversations are happening. Ultimately, how well someone is doing at the annual review should never be a surprise.

Additional Resources

How to Give Effective Performance Feedback

Performance Management