The future of the performance review: Continuous 1:1 feedback

Here are 8 strategies for effective 1:1s that position managers as trusted mentors who create confident, innovative teams – and in so doing remove the dread of the annual performance review.

Performance reviews have been declared dead many times – employees and managers alike dread them. The sentiment behind these pronouncements makes sense — performance reviews infamously evoke fear, discomfort and defensiveness more often than inspire confidence. Yet, they’re still being used to measure performance and determine if an employee is “good” or not. 

Today, the most effective and influential managers think more like coaches and less like critics. They focus on the needs and development of every person on their team. These managers use 1:1 feedback conversations to touch on hard skills like coding and soft skills like handling difficult co-workers. They also invest the time to get to know who their employees are when they’re not at work. 

Here are eight strategies for effective 1:1s that position managers as trusted mentors who create confident, innovative teams – and in so doing remove the dread of the annual performance review.

1.Schedule 1:1s for one hour to avoid “zingers” 

A zinger is an unexpected comment or roadblock mentioned by the employee right as the 1:1 is ending. This puts the manager in a tough spot as they say, “What do you mean you’re feeling burned out? Ok, I need to run to my next meeting, but I’ll circle back with you on this.” Scheduling a full hour for 1:1s leaves plenty of time for zingers not only to come up but be addressed. You can always end early. 

2. Ask open-ended questions

For managers, getting each unique individual on their team to open up — while respecting boundaries — shows a deeper sense of caring. 1:1s are a time to build trust between a manager and an employee – for both people to show they value each other’s opinions, work and feelings. These meetings are a priceless opportunity to have the undivided attention of one another. But sometimes, these interactions can seem fluffy – even awkward. Asking open-ended questions helps avoid painful small talk and provides a path to learn more about what motivates, inspires and keeps the person up at night. A manager who knows the right mix of questions to ask has a better idea of how to support and remove roadblocks, which builds trust over time. 

3. Share an agenda so employees can feel prepared to discuss key moments

A regular 1:1 should come with an agenda that includes key themes, questions and action items. Sharing an agenda ahead of time helps employees come prepared with a perspective on each problem, and a potential solution. It also allows them to add their own agenda items to help the manager prepare better. Going back to zingers, this prompts the employee to think of anything they may need help with beforehand. 

4. Celebrate recent peer recognition and goal attainment

Workplace recognition is a simple yet effective way to supercharge employee morale and drive engagement. Over 40 percent of surveyed Americans feel they would put more effort into work if recognized more often. Employees appreciate being recognized for their good work and they remain motivated to deliver great work if they feel secure in their contributions to the organization. During 1:1s, managers should look to celebrate their people for successes, big or small. 

5. Actively listen more than you talk

Active listening is about giving your undivided attention while gaining a deep understanding of the situation. In the 1:1 setting, it’s about uncovering a root issue, often through subtler elements like non-verbal cues. When an employee shares a fear or a roadblock, it’s safe to assume it’s only the tip of the iceberg to what they need and want to say. Even when the problem seems solved, a good tactic is for the manager to ask, “Anything else you’d like to share about that?” This helps employees open up and feel seen and heard by their manager. 

6. Refer to the feelings wheel to help the employee better explain their emotions

feelings wheel is a great way to go beyond the raw emotion we’re experiencing and identify the core emotion, paving the way for a more precise and fruitful conversation. For example, if someone is feeling “angry” about not receiving a bonus or a raise, saying they’re angry is not nearly as productive as going a level deeper and saying, “I’m feeling let down by the decision.”

7. Spend more time on the “why” than the feedback itself 

Toto Wolff, a Formula 1 team principal, has a philosophy of “blaming the problem, not the person.” This leadership mentality helps employees feel confident in proactively bringing up problems and innovating solutions rather than thinking that the problem defines them. 

8. Share your own past failures

To err is human. Leaders must embrace that and let employees know that failures are an inevitable part of growth. When employees feel insecure about a forgettable moment at work, managers should remember that they’re opening up to them. In this situation, hearing how a similar failure helped the manager’s own growth can be inspiring. It can also serve as an opportunity to connect at a deeper level with teams.

As the workplace evolves, so should the performance review. Regular 1:1s between managers and employees not only help avoid the dread associated with infrequent formal performance reviews, but they help give employees regular, more rapid feedback to know where they stand and how to achieve their own growth goals.