5 Mistakes Managers Should Avoid When Conducting Annual Performance Reviews

Even the phrase ‘annual performance review’ can be enough to evoke fear and sweaty palms for your direct reports. But these feelings likely aren’t unfamiliar to you, either. Together, let’s examine five common pitfalls and how to improve your manager performance and avoid them in order to make the process as productive as possible. We’ll cover preparation, honesty, collaboration, vagueness and the risks of not following up after an initial meeting.

Not being prepared

Not providing enough notice of a performance review and surprising your direct report with a last-minute video call isn’t a great example of manager performance! It’s a recipe for panic, defensiveness, and confusion. You need time to prepare, and you should approach the meeting feeling clear about the message you hope to convey. Essentially, “not preparing for a performance review is like cramming for an exam the night before.” You won’t feel confident or certain about what you’re going to say or do, and the review may end up being vague and ineffective.

It’s important that your direct reports trust you and feel comfortable sharing how things have been going and what they hope will happen in the future. In order for this to be the case, you must cultivate a culture of reliability, preparedness, and punctuality. If you show up 10 minutes late to a hastily scheduled meeting and spend the first few minutes trying to think of something to say…well, we can guess how that might go!

Approach the review with these considerations in mind: What’s the purpose of the meeting? What do you hope to find out? What are the next steps? Reflect on what some of the challenges might be and what information you need the individual to know.

Not being honest

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you need to give negative feedback [link to our other blog about this?]. Sometimes, this can result in poor manager performance in terms of you not being honest. If you don’t feel comfortable conveying the message you really want to convey, you might provide generic feedback that’s unjustifiably complimentary (and entirely vague!) This could lead to your direct report thinking there’s absolutely nothing that needs changing and that their conduct is flawless. 

Being opaque and insincere benefits no one. After all, constructive criticism isn’t something to avoid, and in a psychologically safe workplace environment, feedback is communicated calmly, respectfully, and empathetically. Mistakes can always be learned from, and a growth mindset is essential for professional development. Individuals need to know where the gaps are so they can take responsibility and develop their skills where needed.

The same applies to delaying giving feedback. You might think waiting a few weeks or months will make it easier to deliver. You might consider not sharing it at all. But this undermines the benefits of an annual performance review and means it’s likely nothing will change.

Attempting to fix an issue alone

Your role isn’t to “solve the employee's problem for them.” By making assumptions and bringing your own preconceptions, it’s likely you won’t be able to identify the true cause of any issues. This is where active listening and empathy come in: understand how your direct report is feeling, what challenges they may be facing, how they might approach projects, and how they believe they can improve. 

Listen to find out what’s working well for the individual, what they would like to change, and how they feel they can develop. Your ideas are valuable, but they won’t tell the whole story. Think of the process as a collaborative effort. Make sure any goals and actions set are realistic. 

Being vague

It’s easy to rely on general statements and generic goals, but the most constructive reviews are personalised and purposeful. They are future-facing, too, so consider what needs doing for the benefit of the individual, team and organisation going forward.

Make sure any goals are SMART (that’s Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound), and there’s a clear focus on what could change and how long it may take to see a real transformation.  

When giving either negative or positive feedback, ensure you’re precise and clear about exactly what’s going well (and why). Messages can lose their meaning if they sound too vague: compare “Things aren’t going very well at the moment, are they?” to “We’ve seen a 50% reduction in social media engagement, and I’d love to hear your perspective on this.”

Not following up

So, you’ve got the hard part out of the way and delivered the key messages…now what? 

Make sure to set tangible actions, schedule further meetings and follow up. If individuals have taken on new challenges, decided to approach something differently, or do some additional training, make sure to find out how that’s going. Maintain motivation levels by encouraging the team to report back on how things are going and whether they’ve encountered any new challenges. If your direct report had previously been having any difficulties and together you’ve formulated an action plan, show you’re serious about their development by frequently asking for updates. Listen to what’s going well and where they might need assistance.

Reviews don’t have to feel risky! When you’re equipped with the right resources and outlook, they can be a valuable opportunity for insightful discussion. You can find out a lot about your direct reports, how they best engage, and how they hope to develop. Prioritising planning and preparation and committing to honesty and active listening are great places to start. Add some clarity, collaboration and a decisive follow-up, and you’re all set.