Good reviews: Candor, honesty mean more than money

The worst performance review I ever received said, "You were great"– and it was delivered via e-mail! When I commented on its brevity to my boss, he said the "outrageous Internet salary" he gave me was testimony to how much he wanted to keep me.

Apparently he didn’t know that survey after survey has shown that salary is not the most important factor in job satisfaction. Employees want to feel useful, they want to be challenged, and they want to be recognized for their contributions. Managers can give employees what they want by conducting careful, well-planned, and insightful reviews. This is good news for management, because many companies have instituted salary freezes—which understandably annoys people– while performance reviews are free.

A good performance review takes heart. You need to understand what motivates your employee and where she wants to go, because your job as her manager is to help her get there. A good manager shows the employee why she should want for herself what her manager wants for her.

An employee knows right away how prepared you are for the review, so don't bother trying to fake it. Lack of preparation means you don’t take the review seriously, so you can bet the employee will ignore what you say. Lack of preparation means that mentoring and leading are not high priorities for you, and managers risk having disloyal employees when they don’t take those responsibilities seriously.

The best review I ever had was a sit-down with my boss, who handed me two typed pages. One listed my strengths, the other my weaknesses. In the "strengths" section, my boss highlighted things that I didn't think he had noticed– the fact that I’m a strong mentor, for example. He also highlighted areas that I didn't realize were strengths, like my ability to lead without explicit authority.

When my boss presented the "weaknesses" section, he had already won me over with his insight, so I listened attentively. He told me that I needed to be more discreet when I disagreed with him, citing specific instances when I had disagreed with him, as well as offering suggestions for how I could have done so without publicly undermining him.

He also explained how to ensure that people don't do that to me, their manager, now that they have seen me do it to my manager. In this way, my boss let me know that he really wanted me to succeed and that he was going to help me make that happen.

There was no raise at that review. There was also no rating system ("You get a six for teamwork, you get a five for cleaning up the kitchen ..."). What there was in that review was concern for me as a person and an appreciation of me as an employee.

Approach reviews so that employees feel like I did then– even employees who aren't up to snuff. In fact, people are likely that way because they hate their job and feel like it's not doing anything for them.

If you can't reward your employees with promotions and bonuses, give them a well-prepared review. Use that time to reinforce their positive attributes as well as communicate to them what they need to work on and how you'll support those efforts. And don't treat an employee's performance review like jury duty– a responsibility to postpone or ignore. Treat it as just that: a responsibility. And for people whose bosses are shirking this responsibility, send them this column.
Penelope Trunk
has started several companies and worked for many more. She penned this column several years ago, but she's busy with new things now–- too busy to write new columns.