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Empowering People through Constructive Performance Reviews

Transform performance reviews into meaningful conversations to help staff grow

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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Most lab staff see their performance review as an opportunity to be told all about their shortcomings and weaknesses. It looms as an unpleasant day on their calendar, and they dread the interaction with their manager. This application of performance reviews robs this tool of the power it can bring as a meaningful conversation about contributions, development, and direction.

Performance management is a key responsibility for lab managers. Providing effective feedback to staff enables them to grow, develop, and reach their potential. As staff members develop, the lab will grow with them. Higher performing staff will produce a higher performing lab. Performance management consists of several key steps, including clear objectives, ongoing feedback, interim reviews, and an annual review.

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Clear objectives

The more clearly lab staff see and understand their objectives, the more likely they are to achieve them. In addition, the better defined the objectives, the more likely the lab manager is to provide effective and timely feedback to help staff achieve those objectives. The best way to structure annual objectives is using the SMARTER approach: specific, measurable, achievable, reasonable, timely, evaluate, and re-negotiate. This SMARTER approach produces very clear objectives that are mutually understood by the staff member and management, and are evergreen, so that they can be changed as the circumstances in the lab change.

Building SMARTER objectives helps the lab manager do effective performance management. These objectives set the stage for future performance conversations and provide a straightforward way for managers to assess staff performance. The time invested in developing effective objectives is rewarded with an easier approach to interim and annual reviews.

Ongoing feedback

The most important performance management conversations are the ones that don’t carry the stress of formal reviews. The common conversations around the lab and in one-on-one meetings provide regular and timely ways to help staff fix issues and improve performance. These conversations could be completed during management by walking around sessions, regularly scheduled meetings, or extra meetings called to address specific issues. One of the keys to this ongoing feedback is to tackle issues when they’re small, and to provide constructive criticism and celebration promptly as results are produced in the lab.

When giving feedback, it is very important to be genuine and authentic in the message. Please avoid sandwich feedback, which is leading with a positive message, then delivering the constructive feedback, and closing with another positive message. This approach simply teaches staff to ignore the positive messages while they wait for the critical message, and many managers save up the positives, so those messages are no longer prompt or timely.

As staff members develop, the lab will grow with them.

Effective constructive criticism consists of a clear statement of what went wrong, or could be improved, along with thoughtful instructions about how the situation could be made better in the future. Constructive criticism is a gift. It requires caring to help people see a new or different way to work that could lead to greater success.

Interim reviews

Interim reviews are a great time to review the objectives in detail. Have a conversation that probes the progress on each of the objectives where both the staff member and the manager have input into the conversation. While SMARTER objectives can be evaluated and re-negotiated at any time, the focus of an interim review makes this an ideal time to make needed changes.

Provide clear constructive criticism to help staff that are falling short of the expected progress on their goals. This gives them time to learn and adjust toward greater success before the annual review.

Take notes around the successes and challenges encountered up to the interim review. These notes will be quite valuable in constructing the annual review later in the year.

Annual review

The goal of an annual review is to have a meaningful conversation that critically evaluates the performance of the staff member, and to help them grow and develop to reach greater success in the lab. To be successful with performance reviews, the lab manager needs to be prepared. The first step is to request a list of accomplishments and ideas for the following year’s objectives from the staff member. Having staff contribute to the process helps them buy in to what the performance review is trying to accomplish, and requires them to document, or remember, their own accomplishments for the year. 

Lab managers can also request 360-degree feedback about the staff member. This allows others who work with that individual to provide input that adds color and depth to the review. To be effective, 360-degree feedback must be confidential, or other staff will stop providing it. Take the big picture ideas from colleagues, but don’t use details that could identify who provided the feedback.

Performance reviews are very important, both for the organization and for the individual. Schedule time to carefully consider the person’s performance and to write a cohesive and valuable review document. This isn’t a task that can be successfully accomplished between meetings or in some free time. Budget the time required to think through your evaluation of their performance and to write the document.

An effective formula for a performance review document consists of three sections—accomplishments, opportunities to improve, and the core message. Accomplishments are the few, big outcomes for the year. They are often the results driven by the SMARTER objectives. They are not the many, little activities that represent the output of the year. The lab manager can edit the list of accomplishments submitted, accept the good ones, eliminate the weak ones, and add additional ones forgotten or not realized by the individual.

Opportunities to improve drive the development of the individual for the coming year. It is important to continue to grow people’s strengths. Staff will dedicate time and energy to growing strengths and will likely ignore and feel irritated when asked to improve weaknesses. Growing strengths will drive excellence, while growing weaknesses can only yield mediocrity. Identify two to four strengths whose improvement will benefit both the lab and the individual.

The core message is three or four sentences that clearly describe the level of performance of the individual. High praise is used for high performers and straightforward expectations are used for poor performers. Everyone should clearly understand the lab manager’s view of the performance from these few words.

Issue the written performance review the day before the conversation, so that the staff member has time to digest and process the information. The goal of the review meeting is to have a meaningful conversation. Remember that there should be no surprises in the review. Everything discussed needs to have been part of a previous discussion.

Schedule sufficient time for the review. The written review won’t cover all of the topics discussed during the meeting. It is the foundation on which that conversation is built. For high performers, recognize their many accomplishments and focus on their growth and potential. For average performers, recognize their contributions and discuss how they wish to grow. For poor performers, compassionately emphasize the need for improvement and how to get there.

Before the performance review ends, ask the staff member for feedback. Take a few minutes to listen to how they perceive your performance as their supervisor and ways you can improve. Be sure to thank them for their feedback.

Having more meaningful performance reviews will enable you to have better conversations about performance, which will aid your efforts to have a more accountable staff. While some conversations are difficult, it is very important to everyone that accomplishments are celebrated and issues are addressed. These meaningful conversations will help build employee engagement, which provides many benefits, including greater retention.