A coaching approach to performance reviews

Matt Somers shares seven tips to help your managers turn dreaded appraisals and performance reviews into great opportunities for coaching conversations. 

Managers and leaders can view performance reviews as a chore to be done as quickly as possible. But reviews and appraisals are a fact of working life. Even without a formal system there’s still a need to talk to people about:

  • What they need to do
  • How well they need to do it
  • How they’re currently doing it
  • How they did in the end

These sorts of questions make a great starting point for coaching conversations. The following seven tips will help your managers take a coaching approach to performance reviews and appraisals, to learn from the past and plan for the future.

Concentrate on performance not person
When it comes to appraisals, a manager’s job is to take a cold hard look at matters of performance. Of course they should do this in the most adult, professional, measured way possible. We’re dealing with human beings, and there’s no point denying that there’s an emotional aspect to performance review, but focus on what they have done not on who they are.

Managers may have to appraise the performance of people they don’t like or people they love. They may have to appraise the performance of people they know have difficulties outside of work, or of peers and friends.

The antidote to all of these tricky situations is to concentrate on actual performance, rather than lapse into giving views on people’s personality or challenging perceived ‘attitude problems’.

Look upon it as a process not an event
The so-called annual appraisal is a misnomer. A conversation which only takes place once a year is unlikely to yield anything productive, as both parties are unlikely to remember too much from more than a couple of months back. A final appraisal meeting at the end of a series of ongoing reviews makes much more sense. When these annual reviews are supported by regular coaching and feedback, things get easier still. The annual meeting when any forms or paperwork are filled out then becomes a summary of discussions held throughout the year. This approach also ensures that issues are dealt with when they are small, and high performance is also rewarded when it happens.

Do appraisals ‘with’ people not ‘to’ people
Countless people that I’ve worked with have said that their experience of being appraised was to be handed a completed form and told to sign it. And we wonder why people become cynical! Appraisal is not an opportunity for a manager to cast judgement from on high: it’s an opportunity for them to engage in a meaningful dialogue with their teams, so things can get even better. This requires a coaching approach that means asking instead of telling and listening much, much more than talking.

Offer feedback
The best feedback is pure information. Feedback should be framed in terms of ‘This is what I saw/heard/felt….’

When feedback is laced with judgements like ‘…and that’s awful’, or ‘….and you ought to know better’ is when trouble starts to brew. The judgements may well be fair and true, but people will still rebel against being judged and you risk going down the ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ rabbit hole. Instead, work together to identify ways forward.

Look forward not back
I reckon 90% of any performance review discussion is devoted to looking back, and only 10% is devoted to looking forward. This ratio is the wrong way around. Yes, we need to learn from the past to make changes going forward but if we do this too much we’ve turned appraisal into an exercise akin to rowing a boat i.e. trying to plot a course forwards but facing the other direction.

Make it rewarding, not necessarily rewarded
A performance review should be meaningful and rewarding for both parties. Managers should leave feeling that they’ve given a fair and honest summary of their views. Appraisees should leave feeling they’ve had an opportunity to have their say, that they’re clearer about goals and targets ,and more focused on how they can make best use of their own particular skills. This should ensure that everyone sees these meetings as a productive use of their time.

It might be that there is some financial or other tangible reward attached to the outcome of these discussions. I won’t go into the complexities of performance related pay here, but be careful that these sorts of considerations don’t overshadow the real value in just getting down to a frank and honest conversation.

Always remember it’s about people not forms
In the end, there’ll be some kind of paperwork (or electronic equivalent) to fill out. Probably a form requiring you to use some kind of rating scale. It’s very tempting for this administration to become the focus but this would be a mistake. It’s about people and dialogue not filling out forms. In an ideal world we’d do away with forms entirely, but that’s probably unrealistic. Complex organisations need systems to make things happen effectively. But let’s have forms supporting people rather than people supporting forms.

About Matt Somers

Matt Somers is the founder and Managing Director of Coaching Skills Training Ltd, a specialist training consultancy focused on the idea of the leader as coach. It operates throughout the UK and beyond, working in partnership with clients to ensure that what is intended is achieved. It has a wide and varied client list including charities.

As advocates of the coaching approach Matt works hard to make sure clients are able to continue developing the skills learned long after any initial project has finished. 

He is a leading voice on training and coaching in the UK publishing Coaching at Work in 2006 and Coaching in a Week in 2016. He holds an MSc in Human Resource Development and is a Fellow of the CIPD.

 Find out more at: https://www.mattsomers.com/

Read Matt’s previous coaching blogs here:



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