Performance reviews are incredibly effective when managers and companies use them well. Employees want to learn from their managers how things are going and most of them are waiting for clear and effective feedback: they know that it’s vital to improve their performance. It turns out that the final result of a performance review depends a lot on the way it’s structured and on the performance review questions that get asked from both side.
Still, getting to the point where the entire organization knows how to conduct performance reviews well is difficult and it takes time. Employers tend to underestimate how important it is to coach their managers on performance reviews for their team and employees sometimes feel scared and even confused about the structure and process of performance reviews.
I’ve decided to write an article to help both audiences:
- Managers that need to conduct reviews and want to come up with performance review questions that are useful and effective
- Employees that want to go through their performance reviews learning and understanding as much as they can about themselves while communicating effectively with their managers.
I will include a few learnings I’ve had firsthand managing a team of ~250 people and what we have done to improve this critical process.
What to say in a performance review as an employee
Before we dive deep into “what”, it’s useful to remind ourselves that performance reviews are a key moment for individuals to reflect on what they have accomplished and what they have learned in the past few months. In that sense, a lot of what you should say in a performance review with your manager will definitely talk about your execution and results obtained. Personally, I think an employee should start with a summary of what has been accomplished, describing what has been the focus for that quarter (assuming reviews happen quarterly) and what have been the most concrete results. This is helpful because it creates empathy with your manager and gives him a clear understanding of what you have done.
These are the things I would talk about in a hypothetic performance review if I was an employee:
- Your accomplishments: what you have accomplished since the last performance reviews adding details, examples and explaining how that contributed to the overall business or to your department’s goals.
- A recap about your goals: remind your manager what you agreed to work on since last review and give a detailed update about that -> if you had to work on your communication (or lack of), I would point out to a few cases where you worked on it and got early results. And together with that, explain what still needs work on your end.
- Your thinking and thoughts: explain how you feel about the current status of things and what makes you positive or negative: this is helpful because sometimes managers don’t have enough understanding of challenges and feelings their team have. Listening to it from employees is the best thing that can happen to them before things derail.
- Ask for feedback: once you have given your manager a great overview of your results and focus, I would absolutely ask to share his feedback and ask questions as your manager comes up with things you don’t fully agree with or are news for you.
- Be specific and detailed: many employees tend to be very vague in their performance reviews. They spend days thinking about the topics they will talk about, including difficult things, but when that finally needs to happen, they simply downplay their own point and just mention very high level concepts. This is wrong, and it’s something that will damage you. The suggestion here is to use example and details to make your point or to show what you have worked on.
- Ask for help and make it clear: as you give your manager an overview of what you have done and working on since your last meeting, I would also clearly ask for help in the areas where you feel you are struggling.
This set of questions show your manager that you are prepared and came into this discussion with a clear idea. Most importantly: assuming your manager did not know exactly what you achieved, now he has a complete summary of that, and a lot of his thoughts might change and improve.
As a manager, I’ve always had a key rule for performance reviews: let the employee talk and express what’s going well or not. In many cases the process itself represents a limit to what you can really understand letting someone tell you what he is really experiencing working with your team. It’s also critical to understand where the employees feedback come from: there have been quarters were my communication was lacking or worse than others, and that always had an impact on goals and objectives. Last but not least: as a manager you need to dedicate proper time to reviews. You are either fully committed to them or don’t even bother doing them. People hate when reviews are just a simple placeholder in their calendar that has little meaning and no real consequence for their growth.
How to answer performance review questions
A performance review can be stressful and sometimes you don’t really know what your manager will want to talk about. With a bit of preparation you can use the performance review questions to your advantage and build a better relationship with your manager. Let’s review a few principles to answer questions in the performance review.
Go to the point
Every manager wants transparency and clarity. Don’t spend 30 minutes in your performance review describing things and going around the critical points. Be transparent and direct with your manager, in most cases this is better and much appreciated.
Focus on what you have achieved with numbers and clear metrics
There is nothing more frustrating for management than not understanding exactly what has been done and still hearing everything is completed and working. Whenever you answer a question, bring up results and metrics, don’t hide them. If you can use the ones that make the most sense for the business. It’s pointless to list all the SEO-related improvements you have done in the last quarter, but if you mention that you increases new demo requests from Google by 33%, that will be very telling and will be more than enough.
It’s ok to admit failure if you have a plan
Simply admit it and move on what you will do now to remediate to that. I’ve been in several performance reviews where it was evident that we were not even close to the results we wanted, but the person on the other side had a strong plan figured out, he was aware of the issue and clearly spent time coming up with a different approach.
Self evaluation questions
In many companies the tool used for performance management allows employees to self-evaluate themselves. It’s a good way to prepare yourself for the real performance review but also to understand where you are exactly. Let me list a few questions that I think are helpful as self-evaluation:
- Describe your achievements for the last quarter – this is where you should highlight your strengths as well
- Did you reach the goals you set for yourself during this quarter?
- What are some of the things you could have done better and how?
- Do I feel like my work had an impact?
- Am I growing quarter over quarter and feel great about my path?
- Am I clear on my goals and what I need to improve on?
These are just a small set of questions, but they are enough to help you understand if you are really on track compared to what you have set as goals for yourself and also, if you enjoy what you do or if something needs to change, even in relationship to what you are learning in your position.
Self-evaluation will help you uncover issues in your execution or in your job that you can discuss with your manager. Not everything here will be pleasant and easy to discuss, so prepare yourself to have some difficult conversation as well from time time. For instance, in many cases it’s better to tell your manager you are not growing enough compared to your expectations and open this difficult conversation sooner than later.
Sometimes we have a strong idea about our execution, results and overall performance. Self evaluation questions are a great reality check if you are intellectually honest with yourself. Just reading the question and explaining what you have done will help you see what you have achieved or not.
Smart questions to ask your manager in a performance review
Every company is different and so every manager and employee. That’s how it’s difficult to come here and tell you: “ask this performance review questions and you will be successful”. The reality is that your manager might make all the difference, in a positive or negative way. Still, what I want to try is giving you a mindset and a set of questions that follow that mindset. You should be able to change them in a way that adapts to your company culture and to your manager style.
Try to create a relaxed moment for your performance review, especially as a manager. People will feel more comfortable sharing thoughts and opening up.
I will divide them in categories and explain a set of questions for each one.
Communication and awareness questions
These questions go in one direction: are you good enough at communication? I like to suggest employees to send a weekly email to their managers with a recap of what they have done that week. Results oriented. Don’t waste lines in details, just tell your manager what has been you focus that week and what you achieved. It’s an easy trick to make sure your manager is always 100% aligned with what you are doing and why. These questions below can give you a ton of feedback on what you should improve when it comes down to communication.
- “Do I communicate well and regularly enough?”
- “Is it easy to follow what I am doing and what I achieve?”
- “Is there a different communication style you prefer?”
- “Do you think my team knows what I work on?”
Feedback on your execution
These are critical in my opinion. At the end of the day your manager will care about getting things done. It doesn’t matter your level, you might report to a CEO (where execution is the ONLY thing that matter!) or to a middle manager. Still, your execution will talk for itself and will absolutely accelerate your career. Good C-levels, VPs and directors know what are their “doers” and they highly respect them, because they know they get things done, one way or the other.
- “Did I do everything you expected last quarter?”
- “How is my approach to things inside the team? Do you have feedback for me?”
- “I am trying to focus on my execution. Is that visible for you? Do you have any suggestion?”
As the title says, this is about understanding your manager expectations and how close you are to them. I would not spend much time on it, in the end, this is something that will emerge as a performance review question, from one side or the other, but it’s still worth asking it, in a clear and succinct way.
- “Did I meet your expectations last quarter (time period you refer to)?”
- “Can you tell me what are your expectations from me for this new quarter?”
Problems you can solve for your manager/team/company
I love this! I can’t think of something better to ask your manager if not the problem you can solve for her. Every time someone asked me this question I ended up trusting that person a lot more because this question itself shows you are mature and understand the importance of supporting the team.
- “What else can I do to help you this quarter?”
- “Is there any big problem I can work on for you?”
- “Is there something important I can take off your plate in the next quarter?”
Areas of improvement
Last but not least, use this opportunity to get feedback on your areas of improvement.
- “What can I work on to improve my performance?”
- “Do you have any advice on areas of improvement for myself?”
Examples of performance review questions
We briefly touched base on this category: this is a key one to understand how well you are positioned. In the past I had several people asking me “How am I doing, Stefano?” in their performance review. They wanted to honestly hear feedback from me on how well they were performing. I’ve always tried to be direct and concrete in my answers, adding details and episodes that would add credibility to my feedback.
It’s ok to ask your manager for a general assessment of your performance. Sometimes this is even more helpful if you started in that role less than six months ago: there are many unwritten rules in every company and asking this question will help you get more context on what your manager (and therefore your company) values more than other things.
A smart way to respond to your manager’s feedback is not becoming defensive. “Well I thought that was the right thing to do because….” should become “I am sorry, the reason why I did that is… what would have been a better approach?” – so ask questions and don’t get on a defensive mood. This by itself will go a long way with your manager.
Strengths & areas of improvement
I believe a great performance review needs to be focused on your strengths as well, and not just on areas where you can improve. If your manager doesn’t spend enough time there, you can simply use the self-evaluation to highlight what you think are your strengths and how you have been using them in the period under review.
This is great to jump into areas of improvements. As your manager gives you feedback on where to improve, it’s key to ask for examples and context: you will use all of that to understand what she cares about but also how you can really use that feedback and put it to work in the next months.
Great managers use this part of the performance review to inspire their people as well (something we have talked about in the early days of this blog) but you can use it as well to build a plan with your manager on what really matters for the next quarter when it comes to improvement.
This is where things get more difficult sometimes. Many people want to give their manager feedback but they fail or transform that in a simple note that doesn’t say much. I think you can simply ask your manager “Is there something else I can do to improve our working relationship in the next months?” and let her tell you what she thinks and she would like to do differently. At that point, you can also give her feedback and explain that with examples that are specific.
I know this is not easy as it sounds, but it’s a critical part of the performance review and you can adapt to your manager’s style in the way you deliver feedback.
Bonus tip: feedback questions to ask your peer
This is always more difficult than having a performance review with your manager. That’s simply because you have a different relationship with your peers and finding someone that gives you candid and direct feedback is not always easy.
Still this exercise can be very helpful, and I suggest you try to ask questions after a meeting or after a specific thing happened. It might be a presentation you had to deliver or a meeting you had to run. You can ask questions like “What did you think about my presentation? Was it clear enough?” and when you get feedback, just follow up with some other questions like “Do I do that often in your opinion?” assuming your peer told you sometimes you were spending too much time on the same topic. This way you will transform all of it more into a conversation than a single question that might feel too awkward for your peers.
Last but not least, use 1to1s with your peers to ask for feedback – sometimes you work with colleagues in similar departments or similar projects and you have recurring 1to1s or sync meetings. Explain why you do that (“I am working on improving my communication and wanted to see what you think I could improve there”) and let them give you feedback based on their experience working with you.
- What kind of questions should I ask my manager during the performance review? Ask for problems or tasks you can solve to help your manager or the team.
- How should I start a performance review as an employee? Begin by summarizing your accomplishments and the results you have achieved since the last review.
- How should I communicate my goals and progress to my manager? Recap the goals you agreed upon during the previous review and provide a detailed update on your progress. Also, mention areas where you still need to improve.
- How can I express my thoughts and feelings about the current status? Share how you feel about the current situation and what aspects make you positive or negative. This helps managers understand the challenges and emotions their team members are experiencing.
- Is it important to ask for feedback during a performance review? Yes, it’s crucial to ask for feedback from your manager to gain their perspective and address any areas of improvement or disagreement.
- How can I make my points effectively during a performance review? Be specific and detailed in your explanations. Use examples and provide details about the work you have done to support your statements.
- How should I answer performance review questions? Be transparent and direct, focusing on the critical points. Highlight your achievements using clear metrics and results. If you admit failure, provide a plan to address the issue.
- What are some smart questions to ask my manager in a performance review?
- “Do I communicate well and regularly enough?”
- “Did I meet your expectations last quarter?”
- “What else can I do to help you this quarter?”
- “What can I work on to improve my performance?”
- “Is there something else I can do to improve our working relationship?”
There is definitely more we should discuss in the next articles about performance reviews. I hope you enjoyed reading this article!