Meaningful performance reviews

How to make performance reviews a significant part of people growth

Kamil Burczyk


The end of the year is a time when people make plans for the next one and sum up their achievements. Some companies make the performance review process mandatory as one of the line manager’s duties. Let’s see how we can make it beneficial for the person that is being assessed.

In a nutshell, I approach this process in 3 steps: preparation, conversation, action planning.


I tend to believe that, no matter how hard you try, your opinion will always be subjective. Even if you try hard to assess something/someone in an objective way you will always be biased and it’s normal, it’s a human thing. There are over 180 cognitive biases already discovered and named and new ones are still emerging.

design: John Manoogian I categories and descriptions: Buster Benson | implementation: TilmannR, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is why it’s crucial to widen your data collection. Personally, I gather knowledge from 3 areas: my own, the person that’s being assessed, and peers around.

Personal observations

If you are a line manager it’s your duty to set up goals, grow a person, observe his/her performance and provide valuable feedback. You can’t escape it and the better you get at it, the more performant your team will be.

Some time ago I published an article about setting goals. Now it’s the best time to sum it up and see which of these goals were achieved and how.

If you followed my suggestion of setting up quarterly goals, you might have gone through this step after each quarter. It’s a matter of summing it up at the end of the year.

Look at the goals and their fulfillment. Were they aspirational? OKRs should be — achieving 100% of each of them means they were most likely too easy for a person. Were some of the goals not achieved? What was the reason? Has the business changed over time and goals became irrelevant? Yet another reason to keep some goals defined for a shorter time in order to be able to adapt to a dynamic environment.

The goals tell you what you agreed with a person to achieve, but they don’t necessarily tell you how. The HOW is for me the behavioral part of the rating, which is equally important. Has the person followed the values of the company? Has he/she built relations or quite the contrary — burned all the bridges in order to get things done? What was the communication style, approach to peers, reports and supervisors, what was the clarity, engagement and inclusion? When I start thinking about it I sometimes start with the question “Would you like to work [or continue working] with that person in your team”? If the answer is not “definitely yes”, you should definitely dig the behavioral part.

The world is evolving, especially with the increase of remote work and working from home it’s crucial to shift our perception of performance from “working hard” to “making an impact”. It may sound counterintuitive or even unfair but this is the natural direction of skilled professionals. I don’t want my engineers to be Productive (which according to the Oxford dictionary means “producing or able to produce large amounts of goods”), I want them to be Effective (“successful in producing a desired or intended result”). It’s not about the hours you spend, it’s about the quality of each of these hours you put.

The last tip in this section is to make you especially aware of Recency bias — it’s a tendency to remember recent things the clearest way, which is, again, nothing you should be afraid of until you are aware of it. In order to fight it, you should take into consideration the whole range you are rating, not only recent achievements. In short — if someone was a rock start over the last 2 months but you are providing a rating for a whole year it might not be enough. Of course, you should praise the positive change but at the same time you can’t ignore the remaining 10 months of mediocre performance.

360 feedback

360 feedback is a great tool to get to know opinions from colleagues around (that’s why it’s called 360). There are different ways of doing it. The easiest one is to prepare an online form or email template and ask colleagues of a person to fill it. More mature teams can do face-to-face 360 sessions where everybody openly shares feedback about everyone else in turns.

No matter the format chosen, the most important questions are about good things and improvement areas: start/stop/continue or “what am I doing right” and “where should I improve”. These are open-text questions allowing respondents to share their direct feedback.

On top of that you can put some additional questions, about the role itself but also about behaviors.

What I do is I prepare a dedicated form for each of my direct reports and send it a couple of days before I need the results. In order to make it truly 360 don’t limit it only to one group of peers. If you are doing it for an engineer, send it to his team colleagues, but also his Product Owner, Scrum Master and other people he interacts with. Besides open questions, I put a couple of statements related to a specific role and ratings from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”.

Personal reflection

I always meet with my reports and let them describe the year their own way. If they have had their goals set up already it’s a great reference to structure the conversation. Remember about all the parts — deliverables, behaviors, impact.

I strongly recommend not to skip this part as it’s the best way to get to know where the person struggled, what was easy, why some of the items were delivered in an expected way and others were not.

I also keep it separate to the final performance conversation as it’s a gathering phase — you may simply not know all the feedback you’d like to pass at this point and you may find out some unexpected information that may be hard to turn into proper communication.


Now, when you know what you think, you know what that person thinks and what people around think you may prepare a proper summary and feedback. I tend to have a dedicated meeting focusing only on feedback, not connected with anything else. If I were to choose one meeting that should be done face-to-face it should be this one. Of course, not all of us can do it in current circumstances, but if you can’t meet with the person you are providing feedback, make it as close to this experience as possible: cameras on, make sure you are in a quiet place and your family or kids are not disturbing you for a while.

Some tips to include in the message: focus on facts and provide clear examples wherever possible, include agreed goals and their fulfillment, behaviors, and most importantly cover both: areas to improve but also strong sides (this is extremely important). Someone may not be aware of the thing they are doing exceptionally well, so if you want them to continue, make sure they are aware of it.

After discussing your part, share the results of 360 and help guide someone through the questions and the answers (especially if it’s something new for that person). It’s not your direct feedback, so I tend not to interpret it myself, but instead, I give raw access to this whole piece.

If your company or your team uses a formal rating now’s the time to share it. It’s your responsibility as a manager to assign a rating, explain it, and then defend it if needed. All you did so far was to make it as objective as only possible.

Action Planning

After all this work a person has potentially a lot to think about and reflect on. But what was the end of one journey is just a beginning of a new one. Feedback received from the direct manager and from peers (through 360) is the best development path person could have been given in his/her current role.

Let’s use it to plan the next goals. How to do it? Well, feel free to use the same tool as before and split it into hard, soft and project improvements.


I hope I demystified Performance Reviews and made them less scary, especially for new managers. Remember that the most important thing is to try, once you get past it once or twice you will get better and better at it.

Good luck!



Kamil Burczyk

Head of Engineering at William Hill, fitness and technology geek, Apple fan