How to Use Performance Reviews to Make Employees Happier at Work

dwight-reviewEditor’s Note: This is a guest post from Sean Conrad of the Halogen blog

A lot of employees and managers experience performance appraisals as a negative process. This is true even for employees who are generally good performers. At the core, the reason why we experience performance appraisals negatively is because we are being judged and rated by another.

But you could change the whole experience and improve the business value of performance appraisals simply by changing their focus. What if the goal of your performance appraisal process was to find way to encourage and inspire people to be happy at work and to be their best, rather than to critique, rate and rank them?

There are several things an individual manager or better yet an entire organization can do to make performance appraisals a positive experience that encourages and inspires:

Start by Getting Their Perspective

It’s important to begin your performance appraisal process with your employee’s perspective. Invite them to tell you about their accomplishments, performance, successes and challenges. You can do this by getting them to complete a self-appraisal before you write their appraisal.

You can also do this by having them to keep a performance journal year round or by providing you with short weekly or monthly reports. The important thing is to get them to reflect on what they’ve done, how they’ve done, what makes them happy, what inspires their best performance and to share this information with you. This gives them an active and important role in the performance appraisal process and gives you both information for a meaningful dialogue.

Focus on the Positives

Whoever said that performance appraisals had to be about providing negative feedback on areas of low or poor performance? Why not focus on the positive? Use the opportunity to give your employee feedback on all the great things they’ve done. Give them specific examples, touch on the “how” as well as the “what” they did well, and let them know how that impacted the team, department or organization in a positive way. Positive feedback about our successes is a great motivator, and tends to encourage more great performance. This doesn’t mean you don’t take time to discuss areas where performance is lacking; it just means you broaden your focus and give your employee a more balanced perspective.

Of course, you shouldn’t limit your positive feedback to performance appraisal time. Make sure you give your employees positive feedback on good performance on a weekly basis.

Identify the Root Causes of Happiness and High Performance

Invite your employees to reflect on why they excelled in a particular area or at a particular task, as well as the times they were truly happy at work. What were the “conditions” that supported their success or happiness? Did the work ignite their passion? Did it open up new avenues for creativity? Was it the mix of people on a project or team that brought out their best? Did it invite them to learn new skills or apply old ones in a new way?

By identifying and understanding the root causes of happiness and high performance, we can then try to recreate these conditions as much as is possible or practical. You can’t guarantee that you’ll always be able to provide your employee with work that is fun and engaging, but if you don’t know what makes them “sing” how can you ever hope to encourage that?

Take the Focus Off the Ratings

Ever thought of conducting performance appraisals without ratings? When we assign numbers to performance, we judge others. While it might be helpful to ask the employee to rate their performance, if we want the performance appraisal to be a positive experience and help them be happy in their work, the focus should be on helping them improve, succeed and be happy in their work, not on the ratings. Instead of numbers, the focus should be on:

> What successes they had

> What contributed to their success

> Their career interests

> Skills or areas they would like to further develop

> Things they need to support their performance and success

> Things at work that contribute to their happiness

> Things at work that contribute to their unhappiness

The manager’s role should be to coach and support, not judge. To encourage this, you can do away with numerical ratings all together, or move to a simplified 2 or 3 point scale that serves as an indicator.

Foster Personal Development

You can also make performance appraisals a happier, more pleasant experience by making development planning an integral part of your performance appraisal process. Every employee should be encouraged and supported in their development, helping improve their performance and preparing them for career advancement. Development plans shouldn’t just be assigned to address “performance gaps”. They should focus on enhancing or broadening an employee’s skills, experience and expertise. Here again, you should look at the kinds of work that make the employee happiest and where they perform best. How can you help them expand and develop further in these areas?

You should also invite your employee to reflect on and identify their preferred learning style, and look for development activities that suit that style. Think beyond traditional training courses to include a variety of learning activities like job shadowing, reading, podcasts, volunteer activities, mentoring, on the job training given by another employee, webinars, etc. For example, if an employee hates reading, and learns best by doing, don’t assign them books to read; look for on the job training experiences or hands-on learning activities for them. That way you set them up for success.


Employee performance appraisals don’t have to be a dreaded task that creates anxiety and animosity between managers and staff. With the right positive focus and approach, they can be a powerful tool for nurturing happiness and high performance.

Your Turn

Have you ever had or given a performance review that left you more motivated?

Sean Conrad is a happy employee at Halogen Software, a market leading vendor of performance appraisal software. His passion is helping managers adopt talent management best practices. You can read more of his posts on the Halogen blog.

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* Staying focused on one task at a time is not easy. Especially if you are like me and like to hop all around. Stacey over at Mom Renewal has a great guest post on single tasking that most of you need to read.

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Image courtesy of Libraryman


  1. “It’s important to begin your performance appraisal process with your employee’s perspective. Invite them to tell you about their accomplishments, performance, successes and challenges. You can do this by getting them to complete a self-appraisal before you write their appraisal.”

    I like this twist Sean!

    I think we should think of performance appraisals not as a way to subordinate or rank individuals, but as a way to assess their strengths and make them a better person. If you frame the review in this way, employees should be much more open to the process. They may even look forward to being evaluated because it means their needs are being listened to. It’s empathic leadership.

  2. Jaideep Parekh says:

    The entire issue is probably the frequency of the appraisal. You cannot stand up one fine day and tell me what I did wrong in the last year or half / year. Instead, there has to be a mechanism through which you can tell me on an ongoing basis. Continuous feedback is the key.

    I have started doing this with my team. And have realized that it works wonders. At first I could not provide all the feedback to them in person and thereby I figured out a way of providing anonymous feedback to them. Check out Organizations, Colleagues and I. It empowers every working individual to provide anonymous feedback to their colleagues.

  3. > find ways to encourage and inspire people to be happy at work and to be their best
    That sounds like the perfect focus!

  4. Performance management systems are often rendered more or less useless by a lack of objectivity. For a variety of reasons, managers often decide in advance how they want the ratings to come out, on the basis of factors other than the individual’s actual performance. When this occurs, everyone knows what’s happening, and it is highly demotivating. It also makes the process meaningless.

  5. Great comments all, thanks!

    Steven, the processes tend to work best when the focus is on development not ranking – the whole point should be to find ways to help employees improve, not to rank them.

    Jaideep, true, frequency is an issue, especially with younger generations of workers. The annual, semi-anual, or quarterly reviews should simply be recaps – modern systems provide plenty of tools for regular daily/weekly management and recording of information. Tools such as performance journals and development planning are just a couple of examples of tools managers and employees use on a regular basis all through the year to help with the regular feedback and communication.

    J.D., when the intent of the process is to help employees, they will see the value in it and be much more engaged!


    There are many tools to assist with objectivity – but none as important as focusing the entire process around employee development. When performance processes are focussed around rating and ranking there is little to no value in it for the employees and they will not be engaged. In addition, coaching and training managers on how to help employees in these processes and how to rate objectively (as a tool to find areas for development) are key to getting great results. Systems and tools are needed to take the administrative burden off of the HR pros running this processes so they have the time to do this coaching and training of managers and employees to get the best results.

    Thanks all for the great comments!

  6. Creating a development plan with associates is a great way to allow the worker to identify the negative aspects of the review. This allows for the manager to understand the associates perspective and identify areas of improvement in a positive light.