Expert tips for a remote difficult performance review conversation

10 minutes

Performance reviews are one of the key conversations managers need to have. We know they can also be the toughest. We understand why.

Talking about performance can be triggering, especially when someone disagrees, feels judged, or rated.

When done over video conference they take on another level of complexity. These virtual performance reviews can be tricky.

We can wonder: Will it seem too impersonal? Will something I say be misinterpreted because we can’t be in the same room together?

It is possible for employees to leave these conversations more motivated and aligned than before - even if done remotely. Here’s how:

3 things to do before the conversation

1. Check your mindset

Our mindset towards our employees affects how we communicate with them and how we approach performance reviews.

Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck distinguishes between two different mindsets: growth and fixed. A growth mindset believes that people are capable of growth and change.A fixed mindset believes ability is fixed and pre-set.

Research shows people with a growth mindset improve more. And that’s what performance reviews are all about!

2. Email your employee the written review and meeting logistics beforehand

An example email:

Hello John -

I’m looking forward to your performance review conversation.

I am available [list 3 time and date options]. Which time works best for you? Please let me know and I’ll send an invite.

Here at my house, I’m going to do my best to find a quiet place so we can have an uninterrupted conversation - even with little kids around. I hope you can do the same if it’s not too tricky.

Also, I have attached your review so that you have some time to prepare for our meeting. Please come with any questions you have or relevant topics you’d like to discuss. I welcome that.

Why is this important?

Ambiguity and lack of control can be very dangerous for the brain. That’s why performance reviews that are unexpected or a surprise can be extra challenging to navigate.

Send the review 24 hours ahead of time. This will maximize your meeting time and increase the chances your employee enters the conversation with a calmer, cooler head.

By providing a few options on when to have the review you level the playing field and signal you want their input. Make sure to consider time zones - no one wants to hear difficult feedback at 7 am. If someone needs to timeshift, it should be you.

If you can’t send the full review ahead of time, add this paragraph to your email to lessen the surprise or shock during the actual meeting:

So that you have some time to prepare for our meeting I wanted to let you know this might be a tougher conversation than you were expecting based on what you wrote in your self-review. I will do my best to answer your questions and have a productive conversation on the way forward

3. Prepare sufficient examples

Your employee will likely ask for additional examples or feedback beyond what was in the review. Be prepared with positive and constructive feedback examples.

Research on construal level theory points out that the more distant you are from someone, the more abstractly you are likely to think about them. Having specific (not abstract) examples can help override the effects of distance.

Use the SBI Model

The SBI Model (Situation, Behavior, Impact) will help you prepare objective examples that are about someone’s performance that avoid a character assessment.

Make sure you have examples that are about both results and behavior. In a virtual environment, it’s tempting to focus solely on results, because employee behavior can’t be seen and is difficult to evaluate. Be sure your feedback is a balance of both.

Conversation Script - The Start

1. Share what to expect

Hi John - we’ll spend the next 40 minutes together on your performance review. If we need more time, or if you have many questions, we can set up another meeting in a few days

Why is this important?

It’s natural to want to dive right into the content of the session. Setting up the context appropriately first helps ensure the content will be heard and internalized. It also opens the door for additional conversations and shows they have your continued support.

2. Overcommunicate your intention

My intent in this conversation is to help you improve not just in this role but in the future. I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them. What are your goals during this session?

Why is this important?

The point of having a performance review is to help your employee improve, not to chastise them. When in person you can rely on body language, tone, and facial expressions but let’s face it - this is more challenging over Zoom.

A team of psychologists found they were able to make feedback 40% more effective by prefacing it with just 19 words : “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”

It’s important to also let an employee share their intention and if possible emphasize some mutual goals. This helps to involve them from the start and turn them into an active participant.

3. Describe the conversation structure

I’d like to spend 20 minutes of our time reviewing the past six months and the rest focused on goals going forward. Success would be if we walked away on mutually decided goals and a clear understanding of what success looks like at your next review. How does that sound?

As we talk, I’ll likely ask you a good amount of questions. The reason for this is that I really would like to hear your opinions and ideas. Given this, where would you like to start? What questions do you have on your review?

Why is this important?

Anxiety is decreased when people know what to expect.

One of the most powerful tools in managers’ toolbox is to make your thinking visible. Explain why you’re doing what you’re doing when appropriate.

Also, people own what they help create. Allow space for dialogue: be sure your conversation is a true back-and-forth and set that tone from the start.

Conversation Script - Giving Difficult Feedback

1. Describe ~3 themes / patterns you observed

If you already shared your performance review feedback before the conversation, there is no need to rehash all the examples. It’s best to reiterate the themes / or patterns that you described, your expectations, and what can be done to improve.

The first theme I included in your performance review that we should work on next quarter is …. {reiterate the theme / pattern you observed}. Where we’d want you to get to is … {Describe desired behaviors}. How do you feel about me saying that, and do you have any suggestions on how to develop yourself to get there?

If you haven’t shared the performance feedback in advance of your conversations, make sure you take the time to explain the behaviors related to each theme / pattern using the Situation, Behavior, Impact (SBI) model

The first area I wanted to give feedback on is related to … {theme / pattern you observed}. There were a few situations when this happened. Recently when … (S) and you did ….(B) which resulted in ….(I). And I gave you feedback on a similar situation before. I remember when …. (S) and you did ….(B) which resulted in ….(I).

Each time, after you provide the feedback…

  1. Allow time for silence. It may seem awkward for there to be silence over Zoom - but this is no different from being in-person. Silence is ok, and sometimes even necessary for someone to collect their thoughts and process information.
  2. Practice active listening (paraphrasing, curiosity)
  3. Resist the urge to match their defensiveness with your own.

It will sound like:

what I’m hearing you say is…, is that right? Tell me more about that.

All of these behaviors make it possible for your employees to feel heard and supported, even in the toughest of conversations.

2. Help them hear their strengths and value

One thing I really appreciate about your work is… {name one of their contributions} which had such a positive impact because…{link their contribution to outcomes of team} Thank you!

Why is this important?

No matter where you start the conversation, be sure to set aside time to clearly articulate your employee’s strengths. Even a struggling employee has them. Ask them to describe their strengths as well.

Pay close attention to body language.

Nonverbal cues count, especially over video. When conducting a performance review using video, this certainly applies. Be aware of the subtle visual cues that you give and receive back.

Are your arms crossed? Does the other person seem closed off, with shrugged shoulders, or are their eyes looking down or away? If so, you may be seeing signs of restraint or holding back, and you can use this awareness to ask more specific questions.

Pay attention to what their facial expressions and gestures are telling you and remember to project openness in your posture. It’ll pay off in this meeting and in future interactions.

And, yes, it may feel awkward to look into your video camera but maintain eye contact, especially if delivering bad news.

Conversation Script - The Ending

1. Focus on the future

Your next review will be in X months. Next time we have this conversation, here’s what I expect. How does that sound to you? What would you add or change? What can I do to support you better to get you there?

Why is this important?

After you have shared a clear snapshot of their past performance, both you and your employee should be able to agree on what “needs to be different the next time we have this conversation”.

Research shows we often remember what happens first and last in a conversation. This is called primacy and recency effect.

Close with a clear commitment, a summary of key points, and what they can expect next. Offer additional time to follow up if there are more questions.

2. Follow Up

If you had this conversation in person, you’d be able to observe your direct report after the conversation. But that is harder if your report is remote.

How do they seem to be absorbing the feedback? Do they seem annoyed? Have they put your next steps into action?Schedule a follow-up chat sooner than you normally would if in person - ideally 2 days later.

Last words of wisdom

Know there is no perfect script for a tough performance review conversation. Your job as a manager is to help someone do better, not make them feel better.

Stick to the facts as you see them, leave room for disagreement and curiosity, and resist the urge to fill all of the silence. You’ve got this!

Credits: Photo by @andrewtneel on Unsplash.