Doing a performance review that will benefit both the employee and the company requires a deep level of enquiry rather than mere feedback

Although dissatisfaction with annual performance reviews is widespread, such reviews can’t simply be done away with. In these testing times, when every dollar counts, performance should be optimised. You could argue that managers owe it to owners and employees to do the review, and they should therefore do it in a way most likely to lead to better performance.

Unfortunately, most companies provide managers with traditional “strength and weakness” templates designed to provide an audit trail for decisions about raises and bonuses and to deal with employee-performance issues. The trouble with such reviews—and with similar instruments, such as 360-degree feedback or balanced scorecards—is they tell you only how the person performed, not why. In our desire to follow process, we forget to look at the bigger picture around a person’s performance. The answer to unlocking potential and raising the bar requires more than simply watching an employee at work; it lies in more sophisticated enquiry.

To help facilitate such work, companies need to do more than provide simplistic tools and checklists. They should teach managers how to have a conversation with the employee that gets to the real person behind the performance. Think of it as “peeling the onion”—engaging the employee at deeper and deeper levels, moving from observable behavior and performance to the deepest layer of the individual’s personality.

Conducting a productive conversation requires that the manager understand each of the levels and know how to ask questions that really open up the issues. Here’s a look at how the various layers of the “onion” relate to reviews.

  • Performance is the place where too many reviews end. Performance is too often viewed merely in the context of data, whether hard sales figures or evidence from a 360 that the employee is regarded by direct reports as poor at collaboration, for example. Data are important, but they’re hardly exhaustive. You can get behind the data by asking the employee to talk about a time when his performance excelled or to talk about some recent results. Ideally you will arrive at a deep mutual understanding of what constitutes good performance, and both you and the employee will be able to place the data in that context.
  • Situation refers to the circumstances and conditions in which the employee works. Ask if the employee feels more confident in some situations, and if so, which ones. Probing along these lines should yield valuable insights that can help you create conditions in which the employee can excel.
  • Motivation is often assumed to be difficult to discuss, but the right questions can tell you what drives or inhibits the employee: What do you like to do/not like to do? How do you set goals for yourself? How do you respond to setbacks?
  • Skills are surprisingly more difficult to probe than motivation. Despite the assumptions and inferences that accompany “strength and weakness” reviews, it’s far easier for people to say they don’t like something than to say they can’t do something. Make it clear you understand that strengths and weaknesses depend on context. A strength—decisiveness, for example—might be seen as a weakness in a context calling for collegiality. Instead of confronting someone on “weaknesses,” pursue the topic in those relative terms and in specific contexts.
    Experience should not be restricted to employee’s current job but should include anything he or she might have done.
    Ask such questions as: “Tell me about the most challenging or satisfying project on which you have worked in your entire career,” or “What do you consider to be your top three career achievements?” The answers will not only speak volumes about the employee’s values and accomplishments but might also offer opportunity for capitalising on strengths that might not otherwise have come to light.
    When you understand others’ experiences deeply, you have a sense of what lies at their core. If done poorly, a review can feel like a chronological list of accomplishments and failures. But by exploring the stories, challenges, and key turning points in someone’s career, you will uncover a richer tapestry of experiences, which can help you get the absolute best from your employees.
  • Temperament brings you to the deepest part of the employee and is probably the most rarely talked about in reviews. Temperament—the consistent set of traits and aptitudes that make up the core of personality— is such a sensitive area that directly asking someone to describe his temperament is not likely to yield much. But more subtle questions can open up a real window on the intersection of temperament and work: How do you learn new things? How would I know if you were stressed? How do you normally plan or organise your work? What sort of people do you get along with best? What do you do for fun?

Through such conversations, the manager gets an understanding of what lies behind the employee’s performance, what energises the employee, and how the employee can be best used. For example, a manager who learns that someone is temperamentally unsuited to doing business development can find another area in which the employee might succeed instead of penalising him year after year for falling short. And with the richer data from the conversation, the manager can make a far more informed decision about rewards.

Employees who feel they have been genuinely engaged are much more likely to be able to own the outcome of the review. The shared contexts developed in the conversation, the deeper probing to find out what really drives the data, and the intention of the manager to understand rather than to judge enable the employee to embrace the fuller story and, where necessary, change it in the future.

Remember the last time you felt that someone really tried to understand you? That’s the level of engagement and rapport that using these kinds of questions can enable. Such an approach requires courage on the part of the participants and company leadership. But the rewards in improved performance—and improved performance management—are certainly worth it.