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That email pops up, and you sigh: It’s performance review season again. Now, on top of everything, you now have to write reviews for everyone, trying to cram months of work, ups, and downs into a couple of paragraphs.
Then there’s the part where you actually talk about these reviews. If you’re getting reviewed, you worry about criticism that might come out of left field. For managers, it’s tough trying to mix support with the hard truths. No lie, it’s a tense time for everyone.
But here’s the thing, it doesn’t have to be a drag. Done right, these reviews are super helpful. They help everyone see how they’re doing, show how their work matters to the company, and build trust. It should be a real talk, not a one-way street.
Follow these 6 invaluable tips and techniques to make your life easier and your performance discussions 10x better.
1. Avoid The Sh*t Sandwich
People (even some leadership coaches, sigh) often say you should deliver tough feedback like an Oreo cookie, with the bad stuff squeezed between compliments. But Kim Scott, known for “Radical Candor”, calls this a “sh*t sandwich”, accurately.
- Firstly, this method can confuse people. When you cushion harsh feedback with praise, the real message can get lost in the mix. The person might latch onto the positive and ignore the critical part, missing an opportunity for real improvement.
- Secondly, it can come across as insincere. People aren’t dumb; they can tell when you’re sugarcoating. Using the “good-bad-good” formula can make your positive feedback seem fake, just there to serve the criticism. Over time, this can erode trust. Your team needs to believe you’re being honest with them, not just serving up a pre-made sandwich.
- Thirdly, it’s a short-term fix, not a long-term solution. Sure, softening the blow might seem to save someone’s feelings at the moment, but it doesn’t help them in the long run. Constructive criticism is often necessary for growth. If you’re always hiding it between layers of compliments, you’re not giving your team the clear direction they need to truly excel.
- Lastly, it creates anxiety. If employees start noticing that every compliment is quickly followed by criticism, they might start feeling anxious whenever they receive positive feedback, as they’ll be bracing for the impending negative.
Instead, honest, direct communication is key. That doesn’t mean being harsh or insensitive, but it does mean being clear about what went wrong and why. It’s about respect, too — respecting your team enough to believe they can handle constructive criticism and use it to improve.
It’s also crucial to create an environment where feedback is normal, not a once-in-a-while event that everyone dreads. Regular, candid conversations about what’s working and what’s not can help build a culture of continuous growth and trust. That’s way healthier than a diet of constant “sh*t sandwiches”.
2. Use A Battle-Tested Framework For The Feedback In The Performance Review
Let me show you two frameworks that repeatedly worked well for me and me mentees and peers in the past. These frameworks both give you a no-brainer way to approach phrasing feedback, and help guide your thinking and your discussions.
The (SKS) Start – Stop – Continue framework
What should Alice start doing? What are some things she should be doing but she’s not? What are behaviors of Bob that you’d like him to stop? What activities and behavior keep her from fulfilling her potential? Finally, what are things Charlie is doing well and should double down on?
This framework is often used in agile retrospectives, too. One of the earliest mentions of this method is by Thomas DeLong, who says he learned it from Phil Daniels, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University.
A practical example:
Alice is a great engineer, but she’s very passive. She should START participating in architectural discussions.
Bob often dominates the architectural discussions, resulting in others not having space to chime in. Bob should STOP this behavior.
Charlie regularly brings up security aspects/challenges in these discussions, resulting in better plans and solutions. Charlie should keep this behavior.
Of course, the discussion doesn’t stop here; you’ll be guiding your direct report on how to do these things. Feedback is only the start.
The SBI Method:
Developed by the Center for Creative Leadership , the SBI feedback tool outlines a simple structure that you can use to deliver effective feedback.
SBI stands for Situation – Behavior – Impact. This is my personal favorite, because it forces you to be objective and give context with your feedback. It’s easy to say “Bob, you should stop dominating our design sessions” – but this lacks the “why” and concrete examples.
Describing the situation (or context) in which a concrete example event happened, than talking about the behavior (vs. judgment or your own opinion), and describing the impact that behavior had is a sure way of staying objective. Instead of dictating what to do (differently), this technique sets the stage for a hopefully productive conversation about adjusting behavior.
Bob, last Thursday in the design session with the team (situation/context) I noticed that you didn’t give enough space for others to talk. You took most of the session’s time to talk about your solution idea, didn’t ask for feedback and even when Charlie raised his hand to give his 2 cents, you didn’t respond to that (objective behavior instead of judgment). This resulted in Charlie not being able to give his input, and it also deters Alice from contributing, which, besides demotivating them, increases the risk of us missing something important during planning (impact).
I’ve written about feedback in the past, you will find it useful.
3. Ask Questions To Avoid Defensiveness During The Performance Review
People often say, ‘Feedback is a gift’ — but let’s be honest, sometimes it feels like being hit by a bus. When you’re getting with constructive criticism, it’s usual human behavior to throw up walls and defend yourself — but that’s a double loss. Not only do you lose a chance to improve and advance, but your response might also stop people from giving you straight-up, useful feedback down the road, which can effectively stifle your chances for improvement.
Criticism triggers our fight-or-flight reflexes and it takes quite some training to avoid that. One technique is to ask clarifying questions – this has another upside: it gives you more context and signals a positive attitude.
Asking good questions can give you clarity and dissolve the flight-or-fight reflex. Some examples of such questions:
“Could you give me a couple of examples of this behavior from me? Was it a one-off thing you observed or do you see a pattern?”
“How would good behavior look like here?”
“If you were me, what would be your first steps to improve this?”
Another good thing about asking questions after you’ve received the feedback is that it gives time for you to think and calm down.
As a feedback giver, you can’t trust the initial reaction to your feedback – as it’s often distorted by defense mechanism and rationalization. You can proactively offer next steps with your feedback by simply saying “I’m happy to clarify further if you have any questions”. This invites a dialogue instead of a one-way communication.
Read more about asking questions in my earlier blog post.
4. Ask This Simple Question To Make Sure The Feedback Landed
You may believe you’re communicating clearly, but you could be giving too much information, or too little, or even conveying an unintended message with your gestures. (I’ve received feedback, for instance, that I tend to go off on tangents, which can obscure my primary message, and that my easygoing nature can make it hard to sense the gravity of serious comments.) Couple this with the listener’s confirmation bias — the habit of remembering information that fits their existing beliefs — and it’s clear why communication sometimes gets confused and unclear.
Whether you’re a manager discussing feedback with your team member, or passing comments up to higher-ups, the key to effective communication is ensuring the listener feels secure and understands that your feedback comes from a place of genuine concern for their success. If your tone suggests any hint of a hidden agenda — like a need to assert dominance, pass judgment, or express frustration — your message will likely miss the mark. When it’s time to give constructive criticism, do so with genuine interest and a sincere wish to grasp your colleague’s viewpoint.
One simple trick is to state your feedback and then follow up with a version of this question:
Does this feedback resonate with you? Why or why not?
If they agree, they’ve not only recognized but also considered the feedback, increasing the chances they’ll remember it. If they disagree, that’s okay, too — it opens up a conversation about why they feel that way and how the feedback can be more helpful. To really ensure you’ve gotten your point across by the end of the discussion, you might ask:
Alright, just to confirm we understand each other — what are you walking away with from this conversation?
5. Ask For Permission Before Giving Feedback
We usually take it for granted that we’re allowed to give our opinions to others, thinking we have “the solution.” Regardless of whether this belief is right, seeking consent levels the playing field. It allows the listener to participate, preventing them from feeling like they’re just being talked at. By asking if you can share your view, you’re respecting the other person, providing them an opportunity to voice their thoughts on the issue.
If someone says “no” when you seek permission to provide feedback, be thankful you asked! You’ve just dodged imposing unwanted opinions and also respected that individual’s current state. Instead of potentially feeling overpowered or dictated to, they had a choice. If you’re faced with a “No” after asking for consent, respect that response. There might be an appropriate moment to ask again in the future, but for the time being, you’re acknowledging that the person isn’t open to it. Chances are, they wouldn’t have been receptive to your feedback at this time anyway. Of course, there are times when you need to make your feedback heard (if something’s really burning or it’s the review cycle) – but it surely can wait a couple of hours or days, when the recipient in in the right mental state and mood.
6. Spend Enough Time With Your High Performers
When you’re swamped with performance reviews, especially for larger teams, there’s a temptation to breeze through evaluations for your top performers. They’re already excelling, so why not invest that extra effort and detailed feedback into helping those who are having a tough time?
It’s a common trap in management to assume that your high performers simply “have it all sorted.” Because they’re doing so well, it might seem logical to direct your attention and resources to team members who are visibly struggling. However, this approach overlooks a crucial aspect of team growth and organizational success.
Consider this: your top performers aren’t just doing “fine” on their own; they’re the individuals pushing boundaries, driving innovation, and often, they’re the ones with the potential to become future leaders within your company. Ignoring their development is like having a goldmine and forgetting to dig.
It’s not just about acknowledging their accomplishments; it’s about challenging them. Ask yourself, ‘How can they scale new heights? What haven’t they tried yet?’ It’s your role as a manager to help them unlock this untapped potential. This might mean entrusting them with more significant projects, providing opportunities for advanced training, or simply throwing new challenges their way to see how they navigate them.
The real task during performance reviews isn’t just evaluating how team members are currently doing; it’s identifying how their growth can explode. This perspective shift is essential not just for the day-to-day but particularly during performance review season.
You can also learn a lot from these folks – how they approach things, how they solve problems, how they anticipate future challenges. These can become golden nuggets that you can apply with other direct reports to elevate your whole team.
In wrapping up, it’s clear that performance reviews and feedback aren’t just about going through the motions. They’re about real talk, understanding, and growth, both for the folks getting the feedback and the ones dishing it out. Remember, your top performers are your ace players — they’ve got untapped potential that you need to help unleash. At the same time, clear communication is key. It’s not about softening blows or dancing around issues; it’s about respect, clarity, and building trust. And when it comes to feedback, it’s not a one-way street. It’s a dialogue, where listening and understanding each other’s perspectives is just as important as speaking. So, whether it’s performance review time or just a regular Tuesday, keep these insights in your back pocket. They might just turn a groan-worthy chore into a powerful tool for growth, making your team stronger, more connected, and ready to take on whatever comes next.