Five Tips for Positive Performance Reviews

Performance reviews often create feelings like 😬 or 🙄, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
In fact, performance review cycles that center on reflective, open conversations between supervisors and employees are an essential practice for high-performing teams.

Managed well, performance reviews create space for recognition and appreciation, naming things that need to improve for the success of the team, engaging in honest personal reflection and goal setting, and addressing elephants in the room. They are opportunities to build trust, repair relationships, and push each other to be our best professional selves.

Based on Outside Angle’s team performance practice, here are five tips for creating a performance review process that builds culture and boosts performance.

1. Communicate the Purpose

Start by clarifying the purpose, for everyone involved. We typically state four goals for performance reviews:

  1. To provide feedback to help improve practice;

  2. To help focus on key goals for the organization;

  3. To keep the process lightweight and easy to implement; and most importantly

  4. To encourage ongoing, honest, multi-directional feedback.

Once the cycle is complete, gather feedback from participants to stay accountable to these goals and gauge whether the approach is working. In more than two years of working with our clients, more than 90% of participants agree that the process is meeting these goals.

2. Keep it Simple

Achieving these goals doesn’t require cumbersome scoring systems, rating sheets, or bonus formulas. In fact, most of those things get in the way of what is really important: honest multi-directional communication that helps people focus and improve. Our basic process has three steps: 1) Self and upward reviews; 2) Manager reviews and 1:1s; and 3) Closing out the review cycle with written feedback and as-needed follow-up.

  • During Step 1, employees reflect on their own progress, and also write their upward reviews (so their upward feedback isn’t biased by the downward feedback they’ll receive in step two).

  • During Step 2, managers write their downward reviews and hold 1:1 conversations. The 1:1s happen BEFORE written feedback is released so that participants hear the feedback directly from their manager and have the chance to talk it through before seeing it in writing. Sometimes, clients prefer to have a specific period for drafting the reviews, and then run 1:1s after. Others allow more flexibility for managers to draft reviews as they move through the 1:1s.

  • Finally during Step 3, there are a few days at the end for managers to finalize written reviews, and to close out the process in whatever technology platform is being used.

This sample process chart shows the three steps of the performance review cycle for a team, the timeline for each step, and the actions to be taken.

A 360 element can easily be added to incorporate feedback. We typically recommend practicing 360 feedback outside of the review process first, and incorporating it into the cycle later. The length of this process can also vary. Some organizations allow more time and flexibility in each step, while others prefer to narrow the window and push through each step faster.

3. Value Both Inputs (Practice) and Outcomes (Results)

At each stage, participants respond to a simple set of reflection questions. No more than four questions are needed, but it is important that they prompt reflection on both “inputs” and “outputs.”

  • Inputs are the aspects of participants’ professional practice: the skills, competencies, and practices they bring to work day-in and day-out.

  • Outputs are the outcomes they achieve: the results, in the form of goals achieved, targets hit, progress made on key objectives.

Employees need (and want) feedback about the skills, knowledge, mindsets, and efforts they bring to the organization and team. These “inputs” are most directly within employees control to change and improve; and tend to be more universally applicable to their broader career goals and development.

Results matter too. Being able to set and track progress towards goals that roll up to team and company objectives is ideal. However, this is also difficult, especially in dynamic environments where everything is evolving.

Ultimately, both inputs and outputs are important. Thus, the ideal performance review process creates space for evidence-based conversations about both of these elements. Over time, the link between inputs and outputs should tighten. Improvements in practice should lead to better results.

Two of the four questions to the right focus on inputs and two on outputs. Can you identify which are which?

4. Set the Conversation Up for Success

Practice feedback conversations, and build confidence and comfort giving and receiving feedback. Provide guidelines and guardrails for 1:1s, and a toolkit to help create common language.

  • The guidelines we provide our clients center on the concept of dignity. We ground the process in this concept, and remind participants that the performance review is an opportunity to show people that they are seen. Berating someone is not dignifying them, but neither is withholding feedback.

  • Provide a performance review toolkit that includes simple frameworks, with universal competencies that apply across roles and levels. These frameworks will help participants find the right language for feedback. It should also include sample agendas for 1:1s, and guidelines for giving and receiving feedback. Not everyone will need these tools, but it’s important they are there for those who do.

Finally, work to eliminate technical issues that can distract from the 1:1 dialogue. Lattice is a simple technology platform several of our clients use, and we find it easy to configure on their behalf, and manage to take that layer off of their plate if helpful.

5. Leave Space for Flexibility

If you want this process to boost culture, you need to leave room for people to be themselves. Especially in low-trust environments, there can be pressure to over-engineer the process and dictate every detail. This may give employees a sense of safety in the short run, but it is counterproductive in the end. Design the process for the employees you want to retain and develop and for the managers you want to empower and enable, not the lowest common denominator. It should be possible to exit low-performing employees when necessary, and without having to engineer the entire performance review system toward these scenarios.

When getting this process started in a new organization we usually include a statement like this one in the guidelines supporting the process: We will not formally or formulaically link this process to pay, promotion or other HR decisions, although evidence generated through this process can (and in fact should) be considered as one valid input when these decisions are made.

Flexibility should be accompanied by support of course. Managers should be trained well on the process and all employees should have access to direct thought partnership from HR or, ideally, from an external resource if they need it.


Designed and implemented well, performance reviews can be a process people actually value and appreciate. Many of the employees we have worked with definitely do.

As review cycles continue, the quality of feedback tends to improve and the value of the process tends to increase. People start to trust that it really is about the dialogue, and they invest more time preparing to deliver meaningful feedback with dignity.

If your organization’s process is cumbersome or causing complaints, follow these tips to refresh it and make it more manageable and meaningful for everyone involved.