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How certain performance review phrases affect employee engagement

Like many professions, talent management is well into its data era. From quality of hire equations to employee net promotor scores (eNPS) to detailed breakdowns of types of turnover, talent leaders are increasingly informed, and increasingly capable of building strategic plans to address engagement issues in their organizations.

The vision, of course, is to get upstream of any blockers or detractors, and prevent problems for employees before they start. A fair, supportive, inclusive, and intentional company culture is the necessary foundation for having engaged employees who want to stick around. It’s not easy, though, to find the right places in the employee experience to intervene.

Often, your people managers are the amplifiers of employee experience. By virtue of their role and relationship to employees, they shape how each person experiences your culture and their job. Understanding your managers’ approaches to developing their teams—and supporting them in doing so fairly and effectively—is among the highest impact tactics you can include in any employee engagement plan.

With today’s technologies, that means getting down to individual performance review phrases that are affecting your engagement and retention. What’s hiding in your org’s performance reviews? Let’s look at what the latest research is showing.

But first: A brief review of the importance and status of employee engagement today.

Trends and challenges in employee engagement

Despite a predicted downturn in employee experience efforts, top teams know investments in employee engagement pay off. Broadly, a highly engaged workforce is a high-performing and long-tenured workforce. Research from Gallup consistently shows significant differences in business outcomes between teams with high and low engagement, from productivity (18%) to profitability (23%). High-engagement firms show higher earnings per share, and experience 18-43% lower turnover. Simply put: engaged employees stay, and engaged teams win.

But keeping employees motivated and fulfilled today is a much different challenge from years past. BambooHR data shows “a steep and steady drop” in employee happiness over the past few years, dubbing it ”The Great Gloom.” Workers are contending with inflation, wars, and climate issues in their personal lives while dealing with return-to-office mandates and unclear job expectations at work. It’s no wonder engagement is trending downward, while “quiet quitting” and "bare minimum Mondays" are up. Textio’s recent research found that 38% of employees across companies and industries showed attrition risk.

Beyond the current forces causing employees to tune out or look elsewhere, there’s the one constant that’s consistently helping or harming engagement: performance management. How managers are coaching and interacting with employees is driving their engagement levels on a daily basis. And as we’ll see, even specific performance review phrases have a measurable (and major) impact.

The role of performance review phrases in employee engagement

The feedback folks get (or don’t get) at work has a big influence on how engaged they feel in their jobs. Research has long confirmed the relationship between workplace feedback and employee engagement. For instance, in a study of 22,000 leaders, those who scored in the top 10% in their ability to give honest feedback had direct reports who were three times more engaged than those with managers in the bottom 10%. The study also showed that the employees of the bottom-tier managers were three times more likely to consider quitting.

Textio’s second annual Language Bias in Performance Feedback report took another look at the relationship between feedback quality, performance review language, and employee retention. The data showed:

  • People who get the least actionable feedback are more likely to leave their organizations
  • People who get the least direct feedback are more likely to leave their organizations
  • The people who get the least actionable and direct feedback are women of all races, and Black and Hispanic people of all gender identities

If you’re trying to develop and retain people from underrepresented groups, you need to look at the feedback they’re getting—and help managers give fair, effective feedback to all. As it stands, the people who are commonly most underrepresented in the workplace are getting the least helpful feedback. The consequences for both company performance and DEIB are significant.

The impact of certain performance review phrases on employee engagement

An influential meta-analysis on workplace feedback revealed a shocking 30% of feedback interventions end up hurting performance, despite 70% of feedback recipients typically performing above average. The main reason? The feedback was indirect.

Textio’s recent analysis on performance review language backs this up. Our study uncovered specific phrases for performance reviews that impact a person’s decision to stay or leave their employer. Main theme: indirect feedback. Specifically, we found the practice of “hedging”—hiding your intended message in indirect language, whether intentionally or not—to be the biggest issue.

Hedging phrases for performance reviews make employees more likely to quit

Chances are, you already know what hedging language sounds like, you just didn’t know to call it that. Consider the examples below. The hedging phrases are bolded, and the more direct versions of the feedback are included as alternatives.

  • “I would encourage you to communicate blocking issues way ahead of time” vs “You need to communicate blocking issues way ahead of time”
  • “You may want to get feedback from all partners before the meeting” vs “Make sure you get feedback from all partners before the meeting”
  • “You might consider finishing the rough draft this week” vs "You’ll have to finish the rough draft this week”

Hear the difference? When a manager uses hedging language in phrases for performance reviews, their directive sounds more like a suggestion than a requirement. This is confusing for the employee—is it an expectation, or just something to think about? It’s understandable that people who get feedback like this are more likely to move on from their roles. It’s difficult to learn, grow, and meet expectations when the expectations are unclear.

“I think” is the most common among hedging phrases for performance reviews

The most commonly used among hedging phrases in the study was “I think.” For instance:

  • I think you should finish the project by Friday” vs. “I expect you to finish the project by Friday”
  • I think you did a good job on that presentation” vs. “You did a good job on that presentation”

Why is this a problem? “I think” suggests the feedback could just be an opinion (that might not be shared by others, in which case it’s hard to know how directly it relates to an employee’s true growth areas). Like other hedging language, it also makes an ask or requirement seem like a suggestion instead of an expectation. “I think” can even have the effect of making the manager seem unsure about the feedback they’re giving.

You can see how these phrases, subtly and perhaps subconsciously, can have a demotivating effect. Other common hedging phrases in the study include “a bit,” “perhaps,” and “generally.”

Here are the top 10:

10 most common hedging phrases textio

As with other kinds of problematic feedback, we see that people from underrepresented groups get the most hedging feedback of all. For example, one particularly instructive bit of research showed that participants “upwardly distorted” their qualitative feedback for women, giving them more positive comments. The same was not observed in feedback for men.

Less clear, less direct performance review phrases block recipients from accurately assessing their progress, and from knowing what to do to improve. This creates prime conditions for disengagement, and for choosing to look for a new job.

Textio’s research found that people who get performance reviews with “I think” hedging statements are 29% more likely to leave their company within a year.

Choosing the right phrases for performance reviews

Talent leaders, don’t panic! If you’re worried your managers are using biased or ineffective phrases for performance reviews, there are steps you can take. You can get your leaders giving better feedback, and you can get your employees the performance management they need to feel excited, supported, and committed.

Let’s first look at what high-quality, unbiased, and effective feedback looks like. Textio has developed the “CARE” framework—Clear, Actionable, Relevant, Examples-based—as a handy reference.

High-quality performance feedback is:

  • Clear: It’s feedback that uses direct language and is well understood by the recipient. It does not couch feedback in hedging statements like “I think.”
  • Actionable: It’s feedback you can act on that will improve the skills necessary to meet expectations of the role.
  • Relevant: It’s feedback that’s about work, not about personality. It’s also delivered quickly—not once or twice a year—to remain relevant.
  • Examples-based: It includes specific examples of work that didn’t meet expectations and what can be improved for next time. It shows the recipient what “good” looks like.

Now: how to help your managers. You’ve got options!

Get your managers learning

Have your folks take a look through these, to start building a more effective and equitable mindset around performance feedback.

Get your managers certified

Textio has a free certification course on performance feedback. Offer your managers the Equitable Performance Feedback certification. They can practice five elements of high-quality feedback, and learn how to avoid bias. It takes 90 minutes or less and they’ll receive a badge at the end to post to LinkedIn.

Get your managers support

Unlearning bias, relearning effective performance management, and consistently giving fair and effective feedback is an ongoing journey. Managers need in-the-moment support to enact the best practices they know but forget (or feel they don’t have time to stick to). Textio Lift is language software that guides managers to write unbiased, high-quality feedback every time, for every employee.

Generative AI features like “Write it with me” speed up the feedback-writing process and help leaders better develop their teams—and keep them engaged. Reporting and analytics show you the quality of performance feedback across the org, broken out by demographic groups and teams, so you know which leaders need more support.

Write it with me-min

While certain performance review phrases can lead to decreased employee engagement and increased attrition, high-quality performance feedback for your team can turn those metrics around.

Imagine what can you find—and fix—in your org’s performance review language.

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