A big problem with performance reviews is that they often don't provide people with enough actionable feedback. At the end of a time-consuming process, people sit down with their managers and receive feedback they don't totally understand or accept.
Here's a common example:
Both Paul and his manager have the best intentions. His manager wants to help him develop and to improve how the team works together. Paul wants to improve and position himself for a future promotion. Yet, as is often the case with reviews, the message hasn't made it across. The feedback is too delayed and not specific enough. Paul is left wondering what exactly he needs to work on or, even worse, doesn't take it seriously.
Providing actionable feedback is particularly important when working in engineering & product development teams. Software developers, designers and product managers develop and improve their skills far more quickly when they receive regular, meaningful feedback. Becoming a better software developer requires constant practice and iteration on technical tasks. Working on complex problems and receiving regular input from others, on things like design choices, architecture and performance, speeds up this process. Poor quality feedback may leave managers feeling like they've done their jobs but it doesn't help develop great teams. It's worthwhile spending time to ensure people learn how to make feedback actionable.
The more specific feedback is, the easier it is to learn from and incorporate into future work. Whenever possible, tying feedback to real work examples is the best way do this. Code reviews and design reviews are examples of great opportunities to do this. After someone has completed a code review, sit down with them and talk through the results.
How well was the code structured? Did it solve the specific problem it set out to solve? Is the solution overly complex or just right?
This lets a managers to provide specific examples of things that went well and those that could improve. It leaves people with a clear idea of what to improve on the next time around.
Feedback provided soon after a relevant event occurs is usually far more useful. Ideally within hours or a few days of a relevant meeting or delivery of work. Doing so ensures that the event is still fresh in everyone's mind. It also means people can apply feedback straightaway, instead of waiting months to do it. Weekly one-on-ones are a great time for doing this. They are an opportunity to review and provide timely feedback on work delivered over the previous week.
Providing feedback throughout the year also makes it much easier to discuss the same issues in a performance review. The person being reviewed has context and can think back to clear examples of what you mean. This also avoids blindsiding people and ensures a more productive feedback discussion.
Feedback won't be readily accepted unless it feels credible. People need to believe that the feedback they're receiving is fair and justified. In most cases this is just a question of providing clear examples and rationale, as stated above. However, sometimes it does add credibility to receive feedback from a wider group of people. Including peers in feedback is a good way to do this. This is again why code reviews work so well. People are receiving regular input on specific work from a wide group of their colleagues. It's also why 360-degree reviews, which include peers, are more effective than manager-only reviews.
Balancing feedback makes it more actionable. Hearing what you did well is often just as important as what to improve on. It reinforces the right behavior and practices. Consistently negative feedback is demotivating and people shut down to it. Likewise, consistently positive feedback starts to lose value over time.
A good way to make feedback feel more actionable is to put it in the context of people's long term goals. That way it's clear how focusing on improving a relevant skill will pay off. It also makes it clearer how to prioritize a particular piece of feedback relative to others. "How important is improving this skill relative to the others I want to work on?"
After providing feedback it's important to follow up on people's progress. Providing one-off criticism and not looping back is far less useful. Letting people know whether they have made progress in a certain area helps them either affirm or adjust what they've learned. Again, one-on-one meetings are a great opportunity to do this.
It's easy to overload people with too much feedback during reviews. They often only happen every 6 months so managers feel the need to cram in all the feedback they can. In my experience, feedback is far more useful when it is more focused. Managers should prioritize the feedback they give and even forget about less relevant issues. Focusing on 2 or 3 key areas ensures that people get the message and are able to take action.
The problem with performance reviews is that they often don't give people the actionable feedback they need to develop. It's worth taking the time to think about whether you're providing feedback in an effective manner. Ensuring your teams share regular meaningful feedback is an easy way fast-track their development.