Early summer is a common time for performance reviews in firms where coaches and managers explore how to help team members develop, get better, grow, and progress in their careers. However, because of the pandemic, we can’t just barrel into performance review season like it is business as usual. This year, more than ever before, we have to guard against our performance feedback instruments or our highly analytical, less compassionate, more technical personas inadvertently delivering feedback that feels like, “Here’s what’s wrong with you lately.”

And while no one would take this approach or cause this feeling intentionally, it is important that this year before you embark on your performance review process, that you pause and evaluate how the best approach to feedback and performance reviews and then communicate any shifts you’ll make to the rest of the team, so they execute appropriately. I realize that it’s just one more thing to think about and modify due to the pandemic, and while we may be sick of doing so, the pandemic has been and is very real and it is still impacting our people.

Right now, our people probably can’t take a whole bunch of feedback. Many are an inch away from a breakdown. They are fatigued, frustrated, worried, and wondering what’s next. There are pockets of hope, too, and good things happening in our firms, communities, and country, but the truth is that most of us have a psychic bruise from this past year that could range from significant loss of life or illness, job downturns or financial impacts to their family to just plain being tired from continually having to pivot, care for others, live a “small” life and the general climate in our nation. (Read Jen Wilson’s blog for more on Healing our Psychic Bruises.) Because the risk of potential fatigue, burnout and stress is so high, your people simply cannot hear as much about how they should improve or face a long list of new responsibilities coming their way either.

So, what can you do? Pay special attention to these six elements as you plan for your performance review cycle this year:

  1. The measures. Pre-pandemic expectations and performance cannot be the baseline. In addition to client commitments and staying abreast of new standards, regulations, and tax acts, your team members have had to adapt to new remote technologies, work from home in a different set up with different resources, manage new “shelter mates” instead of peers and colleagues in the next – or same – room as them, manage team members and clients remotely, and more. And priorities have shifted continuously this past year as firms have had to pivot and help clients adapt to changes, too, meaning your team members’ goals and priorities have been continually changing.

So, what is the most important to measure this year? It might be helpful to stop and redefine this with your Service Line Leaders and others so you can agree on what is most important to measure and provide feedback against.

  1. Your tone. Before sitting down to conduct performance reviews, check in first one on one. I know we have been doing that this past year and did a really good job at the beginning of the pandemic. It is probably time to check in again this spring. Have individual conversations to ask, “How is it going really? What’s working/not working? What do you need to be successful in your role? How can I help” If we don’t do this ahead of any review, your performance feedback could seem tone deaf instead of tailoring your feedback session to where they are today. They want to care about their work, but they are burnt out and tired. Approach each person tenderly and collaboratively to identify how to best support them in the near term and over the remainder of the year.
  1. The performance review instrument. Many instruments out there today, like multi-raters, provide little in the way of specific feedback about what a team member is doing well, how they could improve or what they should take on next. And in this environment, it feels like a yard stick that could be demoralizing, especially if we have not addressed the changes in what we are measuring this year as identified above.

Instead consider tools to deliver specific feedback, such as a Keep, Stop, Start. Much of your feedback should be gratitude and appreciation, and not just firm wide, but very specific examples by individual. Maybe this year’s feedback should be focused on more short-term next steps than long-term goals, given the changes and shifts we anticipate continuing.

  1. Limit feedback. One approach could be to identify no more than three to five keeps, those things the individual is doing well, stops or the things that are not going so well (if any), and starts that the individual can take on next – being judicious about the starts. Most of your team members may not feel like they can take on another thing, especially if they also don’t first give something up. Then, make a plan with them for how they will incorporate the feedback over the next several months.

Another approach to help focus and limit feedback could be to share with your A, B, and C players what has worked this past year and just the one thing you need to communicate that they need to work on or improve. Your message could be that we want to take the summer to reenergize, and we can talk about what is next in their career and how they can continue to progress and improve before the fall busy season.

  1. One-size-fits-one feedback. Even though there may be an overarching feeling of fatigue, some of your team members may be wanting to fast track and are looking for feedback to do so and a few others may need performance improvement feedback because they are impacting the team. The one-on-one meetings I described above are a great opportunity to uncover where each person is and learn their desires for what is next or to get a sense if they think they are off track, too.

If they are looking for more opportunity to grow or new responsibilities, you can work with other leaders in the firm to deliver a more traditional range of feedback and next steps, whether by scheduling them on new engagements, providing them opportunities to shadow others, or giving them new responsibilities that another can oversee. For those that have a performance improvement they need to make, like correct a bad behavior, shift to fit in better with firm norms, or if they’re not winning in their role, prepare and deliver that feedback in a caring and compassionate, yet straight manner, with specific steps they need to take to improve with a clear by when. While we don’t want to be harsh and we are trying to be sensitive during this time, allowing poor performers to persist in that quagmire doesn’t help anyone.

  1. The reviewers or coaches. Delivering performance feedback is a gift that not everyone is inclined to develop or has the talent to take on. It is imperative that the most skilled coaches in your firm deliver your performance reviews this year. You may need to pull together your coaches or reviewers and talk about where people are today (fatigued and bruised), and request that grace and tenderness be the standard. You could also identify what has to be measured and what feedback needs to be given right now and with which instrument. If you are changing instruments, teach them how to use the new one, focusing on brevity, specificity, gratitude and acknowledgement. Part of your discussion with your coaches and reviewers may be that you’re not going to get everyone’s performance review done by June 30th just so we can check the box. That will probably be a relief for your coaches and reviewers because they’re burnt, too, and may not feel like they have the time to do a thoughtful job and will feel bad about it because they know how important it is to invest in this process to engage team members and help them achieve their career goals.

You may need to overcome objections to delivering feedback in a remote environment, too, and teach your coaches best practices for delivering feedback effectively via video. To start, please ask your leaders to refrain from saying that we will wait to deliver feedback until everyone is (or you are) back in the office. You can use video so you can see nonverbal cues and really get a sense of how each person is doing and how they are responding to the conversation. With practice, and the right mindset, your coaches can learn to be effective delivering feedback remotely, and we need to because we will have some number of team members working remotely well after the pandemic is over.

The performance review process is an important one, and one that we do not want to take lightly or step over. This year it is important to evaluate what changes in our approach need to be made so you can focus on the most important message for each of your team members, starting with thank you. Take the time to pause and determine how you should proceed this year with your leadership team and then get your coaches and reviewers in the conversation and on the same page. You will find that you have a bigger impact in engaging your team and helping them move forward when you do!

I welcome any comments or questions as you’re contemplating your performance review process this year.