Managing Millennials Q&A: How can I give an effective annual review when the process seems archaic?

Note to readers:  Here’s the latest in a series based on questions I frequently hear about managing millennials — those Managing Millennialsongoing management challenges that can really make or break workplace relationships.

Have a question you’ve been dying to ask? Send me an email and I will try to cover it in a future edition as I tackle questions and provide advice for managers and millennials (and, of course, millennial managers). I hope the advice I share is helpful for all generations.

Recently a manager reached out to me with a question that might be on lots of leaders’ minds as the end of the year rolls around: “Everything I read says the trend is away from annual reviews, but my company still requires them. How can I make reviews effective, especially for my millennial employees?”

It’s true that companies in industries ranging from consulting (PwC) to banking (Goldman Sachs) to manufacturing (GE) are shaking up their annual review systems with more frequent and effective feedback loops. But while an annual review is decidedly old school, you can still make the practice a potent learning tool by borrowing some of these best practices.

Tell your employees why your company still does annual reviews.

Not sure? You should definitely ask why management is sticking to the procedure, given the shift away from this once-expected ritual. It could be the company hasn’t thought of something better to take its place (maybe you’d like to lead the task force!) or is in the midst of a transition to an updated system. Or your organization might have data showing that annual reviews really do provide value.

Today’s workers crave transparency, so telling them why the company still relies on an annual review, even if it’s not your preferred method of communication, can help them feel “in the know.”

Focus on the future and each team member’s potential.

Take a cue from Deloitte, which revamped its review process to hone in on what team leaders would “do” with a specific team member rather than what they “think” of them, according to Ashley Goodall, former director of leader development. He shares the four questions from the revamped performance tool:

  1. Given what I know of this person’s performance, and if it were my money, I would award this person the highest possible compensation increase and bonus [measures overall performance and unique value to the organization on a five-point scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”].
  2. Given what I know of this person’s performance, I would always want him or her on my team [measures ability to work well with others on the same five-point scale].
  3. This person is at risk for low performance [identifies problems that might harm the customer or the team on a yes-or-no basis].
  4. This person is ready for promotion today [measures potential on a yes-or-no basis].

Follow the rules, but create your own system too.

There’s nothing that says you have to only offer the backwards-looking annual review; consider additional real-time, targeted feedback by hosting frequent performance and career development conversations throughout the year.

One study found that millennials want feedback 50 percent more often than other employees (although all groups preferred feedback monthly or quarterly versus annually) so make it a regular part of your routine.

And it’s fine to be available on a schedule that suits you — whether it’s regular daily office hours or a monthly catch-up call.

Be generous with positive reinforcement.

No one wants a steady diet of criticism, yet research shows that managers are sometimes reluctant to give positive reinforcement. In one study almost half of managers reported that giving negative feedback was stressful or difficult, but only 37 percent said that they went out of their way to give positive feedback. However, when the researchers talked to the manager’s direct reports, they found that more than half of the respondents rated leaders who gave positive feedback as effective, while only 36 percent said the same about managers who focused on the negative.

Be specific with your feedback.

Many managers find that the more feedback they give, the more their team wants, which is great — until it interferes with your day-to-day work. Try being specific in your suggestions: Rather than giving a vague “Needs improvement,” try to let your employees know exactly what they could do, to, for example, polish their presentation skills. Maybe you can recommend practice in handling tough questions or should commit to speaking up more frequently at team meetings.

Perfect your reviewing technique.

Of course, not all the feedback is going to be good, and delivering bad news can be tough. We’re so used to sending emails that sometimes we find we’ve lost the muscle for walking into someone’s office and giving them constructive criticism face-to-face. If you think your feedback-giving skills might need a tune-up, I highly recommend the book Crucial Conversations.

The bottom line is that while annual reviews are losing popularity, feedback itself is more important and valued than ever. Leaders should take advantage of any opportunity to deliver it effectively, including through this somewhat archaic construct.

Does your company still require annual reviews? What feedback tools do you find most useful? I’d love to hear on Twitter or in the comments below.

Lindsey Pollak is the leading voice on millennials in the workplace, trusted by global companies, universities, the world’s top media outlets — and, most importantly, by millennials themselves. A New York Times bestselling author, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her keynote speeches have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.

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