Performance reviews fail because of two things that happen way before the actual review: poor note taking and infrequent communication.

How to survive performance review season as a manager

It’s that time of the year again…

In most tech companies, clearly assessing the quality of work done by the employees is one of the top priorities for managers. Companies want to create a meritocratic culture. If you don’t know how to compare two employees’ performances to one another, there’s no way you can ensure merit, right?

There are many things wrong with the current perf review standard, but what most companies don’t realize is that most managers are uncomfortable with it. Managers play an extremely important role in this process, and if they are uncomfortable they will do a poor job at it, which can easily break the manager-reportee relationship.


Managing people is about trust. And that trust is oftentimes broken in perf review season. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”, “You seemed so happy about my work”, “I would have done something if I knew the situation I was in’’, and many more like these are common replies (or worse: thoughts) of reportees during their performance reviews. It feels like deception.

But trust is not only broken when there are things that the reportee should improve. It can easily be broken too when there’s little or no recognition of the things that reportees are doing well. Busting your ass off for that “urgent” project in February and not seeing even a single comment of it in your mid-year performance review can be devastating too.

Unfortunately, things like these happen all the time. Having difficult performance reviews is more likely than having relaxed ones. Is it because receiving feedback is hurtful? Is it because people have too much pride to admit their mistakes?

No. Performance reviews fail because of two things that happen way before the actual review: poor note taking and infrequent communication.

Fixing performance reviews

What you need to do as a manager to start having pleasant performance reviews is simple:

  1. Take notes of situations the moment they happen.
  2. Have periodic touchpoints with your reportees where you talk about these situations.

Taking notes at the right moment

Whenever a situation worth commenting arises, write it down somewhere. Always. Even if you just talked about it with your reportee. If that’s the case, write it down and put a marker on it to know that you’ve already talked about this particular feedback.

When writing the situation or feedback down, state explicitly the following:

Once you talk to your reportee about the feedback, add the date in which you talked. This will help you later on the actual performance review.

I’ve noticed that taking these notes in a safe and centralized place with enough information to give good feedback later is the main problem managers face. Be diligent with this. If you don’t keep your feedback organized you won’t be able to keep a healthy relationship with your reportees.

For note taking, try to use something that you can always have with you. An online document, one for each reportee was my goto place for years. It’s simple and you can format it in whichever way you want. If you want to try something a bit more specific to the task at hand, try the Manager Secret app for iOS. You can enter your reportees there and organize the feedback for each member. It will automatically take care of all the dates and it will notify you if you are not taking enough feedback.

Having periodic touchpoints

It’s extremely difficult to improve at something that you do once or twice a year. If you want to have good feedback meetings with your reportees you are going to have to increase their frequency. Doing one meeting per week (or one every two weeks) with each reportee will help you gauge the situation with your reportees more often, giving you (and them) time to steer to the correct direction.

Just mark a recurring one-on-one meeting with them with the main purpose of talking about things that happened in between meetings. You can bring your notes to these meetings and be open with your reportee about them. Be clear on what is praise, what is coaching and what is a deal breaker. Ask your reportee what they think about the situations and feedback you brought to the table and make adjustments to your notes.

Finally, have your reportee give feedback to you and treat it the way you’d like them to treat your feedback. Is there something you need to change? Do it before the next meeting and start by showing your reportee that you’ve listened and changed what was bothering them. Lead by example.

One tip to make these meetings feel natural: use the first meeting to set expectations on how all other meetings should be. Explain that you are going to bring feedback, that you’ll be clear on the urgency of it and that you expect them to discuss the feedback with you and change what’s necessary. Also explain that this will be their place to do the same with you, so they can also prepare feedback for you.

Mock perf review

Every once in a while (once a month maybe), check how your feedback is going.

What would you say in a performance review to your reportees? Check if you have already said all those things. If you haven’t, add them as feedback for the next meeting.

You can also take some time from your next meeting with your reportee to let them know how their performance review would go if they were to have it now. Validate with them if you are both on the same page and explain whatever is necessary if you aren’t. If you’ve been following the note taking and periodical meetings framework, you are most likely to be on the same page with your reportees, but it never hurts to check.

Make changes as necessary

Every reportee is different so every one-on-one should be different. Take time to iterate its format with your reportees and make adjustments as you go. Just make sure to always take notes of your feedback and to explicitly discuss them with your reportees.

Let me know how this works for you!