Making The Most Of The Dreaded Annual Review

Nurturing employee engagement is an ongoing process, not something to tick off the list once a year. Here’s how to make the most out of performance reviews and career coaching.

Making The Most Of The Dreaded Annual Review

Engagement is a personal equation, and managers must play a role in helping each employee solve it. Your best managers already understand this. They’re not waiting for survey data to shape what they do. They don’t make engagement a once-a-year priority, distinct from what they do the rest of the time. They always manage their teams with an eye toward results and engagement.


How do they do it? Dialogue. Sounds pretty simple: if you manage employees, you need to talk to them. Yet manager-employee conversations are more of a myth than a best practice in a majority of organizations. Many managers sheepishly acknowledge that they should have more regular sit-downs with their individual team members, but a variety of excuses (e.g., “Not enough time,” “Mired in my own work,” “Never get around to it”) stand in the way. That is too bad, because dialogue is at the heart of high engagement and sustainable performance.

So rather than investing your time and resources in driving manager compliance with check-the-box corporate-driven online engagement action plans, get your managers talking to their people.

The Performance Appraisal

This discussion should be on every manager’s list already and is likely to be the only conversation that is happening with any consistency or regularity. Unfortunately, it is often seen as an HR-driven task that fills many managers and employees with dread–and does little to actually fuel high performance.

The performance appraisal is primarily about what employees need to deliver to drive the organization’s success. It’s an opportunity to review results, provide feedback on how results were achieved (if your performance management systems includes competencies or organizational values), and confirm expectations. It’s also the time to talk about any development needed to achieve even greater success in current roles and upcoming projects.


We have seen managers tackle these conversations with a variety of styles–from meek conflict-avoidance to the back-of-the-head-with-a-two-by-four. But one thing routinely lacking from performance appraisals is this: how do we build the “success connection”–namely, how do we figure out how best to put your passion and talents to work for the greatest contribution to the organization?

Although performance appraisals appropriately focus on maximum contribution the organization’s side of the engagement model), the greatest performance improvement results when an individual’s personal motivators, interests, and talents are taken into account.

Yet rarely do performance appraisals address those elements. When they do, they come in at the end of the conversation with a perfunctory question such as, “Where do you want to grow next year?”

Some appraisals run out of time before that topic comes up, and let’s be honest: during the performance appraisal your employees aren’t thinking about their satisfaction or development. They’re waiting to hear answers: What are my ratings or rankings? How much, if anything, will my merit increase be? Have I earned my full bonus?

So rather than trying to reengineer your performance appraisal discussion to tap into personal engagement drivers of employees, we suggest that you make sure

  • Your appraisal process drives clarity of priorities and expectations and provides fair and useful performance feedback.
  • Your managers understand that performance feedback should be immediate and year-round (even though they’re being monitored just once a year).
  • You hold your managers accountable for addressing performance problems with clear action steps like performance improvement plans.
  • Encourage and train your managers to talk with their teams the rest of the year–in career coaching conversations, onboarding discussions, and engagement reviews.

The Career Coaching Conversation

The career coaching conversation is more about what employees want. Although it is heavily weighted toward the individual’s side of the engagement model (maximum satisfaction), career development must happen in the context of the business: your employees’ personal aspirations need to be fulfilled while simultaneously addressing organizational needs. You don’t really want your employees pursuing their career agendas and building their skill sets for future employability on your payroll without regard to your needs, do you? Career coaching is the perfect opportunity to align your interests with their passion and aspirations.

Many of the managers we’ve talked to fear career conversations more than performance appraisals. Worries abound: What is the employee looking for? What jobs are actually available? What if I don’t have the answers? How will the team fare if this person takes another job down the hall? The result: conversations don’t happen–even in those organizations that boast the common mid-year development/career conversation in their performance management process.

Yet career development is a top reason your employees will leave. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s consider the conversations that need to take place to help equip employees for a promising, satisfying future with your organization.

Career Coaching Tips


The goal of managers in career discussions is to support not control. That means it is more important to ask good questions than have all the answers. It’s about helping employees clarify what they want, build on strengths, address career liabilities, identify development opportunities, network within the organization, and take control of their career success.

Consider your own team. To help them get where they want to be and where your organization needs them to be,

  • Consider your organization’s strategy, future talent needs, your most pressing team priorities, and the work that needs to be done today. In other words, be crystal clear on what matters most to you and your organization.
  • Then consider what you know of each employee’s talents, experience, interests, goals, and preferred job conditions.
  • Clarify your understanding of their needs during the coaching conversation. Many employees don’t really know what they want, so ask questions to get to the motivation behind statements such as “I want P&L accountability,” “I want to manage people,” or “I want to try something new.”
  • Help in brainstorming possible matches. Of the work that needs to be done–on your team or elsewhere in the organization–which assignments fit that person’s skills and interests?
  • Take a breath and relax: not everyone wants your job. About half of employees are looking for meaningful or interesting work in their next career move. Only 8 percent want a promotion, and only 14 percent want more money. Those findings support our experience that successful career coaching conversations often result in changes to the employee’s current job scope, not an official change in position. When you set aside the word career and focus on the opportunities for meaningful, interesting work, you will find the possibilities seem endless. After all, there is much work to be done.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from The Engagement Equation, by Christopher Rice, Fraser Marlow and Mary Ann Masarech. Copyright (c) 2012 by BlessingWhite.

Christopher Rice is the President and CEO of global consulting firm BlessingWhite, which helps create high-performance cultures that drive results and reinforce organizational values. Fraser Marlow is the Vice President of Marketing & Research at BlessingWhite. Mary Ann Masarech is the employee engagement practice leader at BlessingWhite.

[Whistle Image: Feng Yu via Shutterstock]