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How to write a performance review as a first-time manager

Congrats, boss! You’re a people manager now. How’s it going? Bet you’re doing great.

You’re here because you’re about to write a performance review and need some pointers. And I’m here because the Textio team has lots of expert research and resources to share that will help you write an appropriate review. And also because we’re trying to rank on Google for related keywords.

Cool that we can help each other! Let’s get started.

What is a performance review?

It’s good to first ground yourself in the actual definition of a performance review. Let this guide you as you research and prepare, to ensure you’re aligning to the true function of a performance assessment.

The job-search site Indeed provides a nice succinct summary: “A performance review is a periodic assessment of an employee's overall performance and their contribution to the organisation.”

They add: “[It] entails identifying employee strengths and weaknesses, setting future goals and sharing feedback. Some companies conduct their performance reviews annually, while others do so monthly or quarterly.”

In this blog, we’ll assume you’re writing an annual review—but most of the guidance is applicable for any evaluation or feedback you’d write throughout the year.

Why is it important to get performance reviews right?

You’re likely thinking about the value of a high-quality performance review to your employee, which, of course, is immense. You’re probably also thinking about how giving effective employee performance reviews can improve team and company output. But there are a couple other beneficiaries to solid employee reviews: your People team, and you! Let’s review.

Good performance reviews are good for employees

A thoughtful, accurate, instructive employee performance review helps a worker understand what they’re doing well, where they have room to grow, and how to take action on their development. It gives them insights and perspectives they can’t have about themselves, and—if done well—motivation to work on their growth areas.

Personal story time (I’ll be quick): I got my best-ever performance review last year at Textio. “Best” as in “most useful.” My manager outlined my strengths of course, but she also detailed specific ways I could grow (in ways I wanted to grow at that). She gave me ideas for expanding my influence and impact that were so aligned but weren’t things I’d consciously realized I should focus on. It left me inspired, committed, and ready to start stretching into new skills.

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Did I get my most helpful review yet because I had a great leader, or because she used coaching software to write my review, which guided her to craft a fair and growth-oriented assessment? I’m gonna say both.

My story isn’t unique. As Textio has previously reported, a study of 22,000 leaders showed that those ranked in the top 10% on giving feedback had employees who were three times more engaged than employees with leaders in the bottom 10%. And that bottom 10% had employees who were also three times more likely to think about quitting.

In Textio’s 2023 Language Bias in Performance Feedback report, “insufficient feedback” was specifically named by 17% of survey respondents as a primary reason they’re looking for a new job. Several others gave feedback-related reasons like “feeling underappreciated” or “lack of growth opportunities.”

Good performance reviews are good for teams and companies

Pretty simple: when workers know how they can improve, and feel motivated to make those improvements, their teams level-up as well. Better work from individuals means better inputs into others’ work, creating better project outputs and better company productivity overall.

Higher-quality feedback also means higher employee engagement and employee retention: Textio data shows that employees who receive low-quality feedback are 63% more likely to leave their organizations.

Good performance reviews are good for HR and Talent Management

Whether your People team is spot-checking reviews, asking leaders for insights as they draft evaluations, or reviewing more official reporting from their performance management software, they’re looking to the performance review process for intel on how teams and the org as a whole are doing. They’re also looking for instances of bias, and for signs that the company culture is working (or needs work). Thoughtful and thorough employee reviews give People teams helpful data to work from.

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Good performance reviews are good for managers

Now that you’re a manager, your performance is dependent on your team’s performance. The better you’re able to coach and enable your team, the better your own “performance” within the company. How your team is doing is a reflection of how you’re doing as a manager, and by helping your direct reports grow their careers, you grow your own career too.

Preparing to write a performance review

Here is your 9-step process for getting into character as Dedicated Manager Who Is Somehow Great at Writing Performance Reviews Even Though They’re New to This:

  1. Get guidance and training: Ask your peers. Ask your own manager. Certainly ask your People team. Get advice, wisdom, and training if it’s available, from folks in your company and network. Our advice? Take Textio’s free Equitable Performance Feedback certification course. It’ll take you less than an hour, and you’ll learn how to construct fair and effective feedback and even get a little certificate at the end for LinkedIn.
  2. Gather employee performance insights: Get this step started now if it’s not already in motion so you give others enough time to get back to you. Depending on how your org does reviews, these insights may include peer reviews; the employee’s self-review; feedback from others who work closely with the person; one-on-one conversation notes; project reporting, analytics, and debriefs; emails and internal messaging; and awards, “shout outs,” and other points of recognition.
  3. Block out plenty of time: Based on the guidance you received—and what you know about yourself—put enough time in your calendar to both absorb the performance insights about your employee and also to write your review. I know you’re busy, but honor your time blocks. You’ll be glad you did.
  4. Review best practices: Start high-level. Take a look through general best practices to set up your mental framework for employee reviews. Here are Textio’s performance review dos and don’ts for reference.
  5. Learn about biases: If you took the Equitable Performance Feedback course, you got a good primer on the unconscious social biases that often show up in performance reviews. Steer clear! Other rater biases to be aware of, as Lattice outlines, include “…anchor bias (over-reliance on first impressions), proximity bias (rating onsite employees more highly than remote workers), recency bias (basing your ratings only on recent events), and halo bias (inflated positive ratings of skills based on your positive perception of an employee).” The impact of biases in performance reviews on employee engagement and employee retention—and how those biases reflect and perpetuate existing inequality, discrimination, unfairness, and lack of representation—might be bigger than you think. The more you study, the more you’ll see, so take some time to dig in. (Product plug: Textio Lift highlights biases in your feedback and helps you remove and revise them.)
  6. Review performance goals and role rubrics: Now it’s time to look through the documented performance expectations of your employee’s role. Review it thoroughly, clarify anything that’s unclear, and keep it handy—this is your anchor for your evaluation. Focusing on performance indicators (over personality characteristics or anything else) will help you remain objective.
  7. Review employee performance insights: Just after looking through the role’s expectations, you’ll want to read through all the input you’ve gotten on your employee’s performance. Doing these steps back-to-back will help you more accurately assess performance against true (and fair) indicators. Write down your key observations.
  8. Check out equity-focused templates: Speaking of fairness, a well-constructed review template can guide you in drafting a performance review that hits all the right points (and avoids the wrong ones). Here are templates for eight different types of employee reviews, plus a list of things any performance review should include.
  9. Don’t overthink it: Yes this is really important and requires your utmost attention and care, but don’t freak yourself out. All you can do is your best, right? Give it your best and move on. We all get better with practice, and this is your first “rep.” Expect a lot from yourself—but don’t expect perfection.

How to write a good performance review

OK, time to actually write the thing. Whether words are your jam, you loathe writing, or you’re somewhere in between, writing a performance review feels daunting for everyone. These tips will help.

  • Reconsider ChatGPT: I knowww you want to just pop some prompts into ChatGPT and see what it gives you but there is so much wrong with this approach. First of all are you really about to put your employee’s performance data—your company information—into a public tool? Let’s say you don’t think that’s a big deal: do you think being a biased manager is a big deal? ChatGPT writes ridiculously biased performance reviews. It’s gross. It’s risky. Don’t do it. There is a better way.
  • Do consider generative AI: If you can verify the safety and security of the software, generative AI can be a tremendous help in writing effective performance reviews. For example with Textio Lift’s “Write it with me” feature, you can plug in a few details and quickly generate high-quality (and bias-free) feedback. Importantly, the process still requires you to be reflective about your employee’s performance and thoughtful about your inputs, so you can’t fake it. In fact, it’s designed so that you’re learning as you’re writing with the tool—it coaches you through every word, so you understand how you can choose better language to help your team members grow. 

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  • Use the CARE framework: What does “good” feedback really look like? Broadly, it follows the “CARE” framework—Clear, Actionable, Relevant, Examples-based. This is Textio’s model for high-quality feedback. Look for these elements in your assessment:
    • Clear: uses direct language—no hedging statements like “I think”—and is well understood by the recipient. Note: Textio’s latest research on performance feedback found that 61% of people who intend to stay in their jobs said they had a clear understanding of their work expectations, whereas only 21% of those planning to leave did.
    • Actionable: has critiques the worker can act on that will improve the skills necessary to meet expectations of the role, or grow beyond it.
    • Relevant: is about work, not about personality, and is delivered in a timely manner.
    • Examples-based: includes specific examples for work that went well, or work that didn’t meet expectations and how it can be improved for next time.
  • Use the SBI model:When you’re writing out examples in the review, consider using the SBI (Situation-Behavior-Impact)™ framework developed by the Center for Creative Leadership. It’s just as it sounds: describe the situation, describe the person’s observable behavior, and describe the results of that behavior. It doesn’t have to be quite so formulaic in your actual writing, but this will at least help you ensure you’re giving complete examples.
  • Check (again) for bias, legal, and/or ethical issues: Whatever trusted tools you have at your disposal for this, use them. Do a review based on what you’ve learned about bias, and then also use technology, research, your company’s process or performance management software, your People people, and anything else you’ve got to ensure you’re giving a fair and accurate performance review.

And now you’ve written the review, yay! Time to have that performance conversation with your employee.

That’s another blog though, sorry.

Rooting for you! Also, you can learn more about our free trial of Textio Lift here.

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