Build an Attractive Workplace Culture: A Better Performance Review

Author’s Note: This is Part Three of the Build an Attractive Workplace Culture Series

Ever heard of the Recency Effect?

It’s when people remember the information most recently presented to them best. And it plays a major role in performance evaluation in the American workforce.

Supervisors are often asked to evaluate a year’s worth of performance, an inherently flawed assignment. When we evaluate these too-long stretches of someone’s work, the Recency Effect can pollute a well-intended evaluation. A supervisor will often give unequal weight to what the employee did in the several months that close out the performance cycle.

What does this look like?

Well, you give an A to a team member who did well the final three months but was lackluster the first nine. Or, you give a C to a team member who did poorly the final two months but did great the first ten.

Although there are ways to combat this, it’s harder (and less effective) than it needs to be.

And these aren’t the only psychological effects and cognitive biases that our traditional tools suffer from. Others include:

  • The Halo Effect: When we characterize all of someone’s work as excellent because of one significant thing they did well.
  • The Horn Effect: When we characterize all of someone’s work as poor because of one significant thing they did wrong.

On a personal level, I have an aversion to numerical evaluations.

Don’t get me wrong–I have kids in school and I think they should get grades on their tests and cumulative numerical grades on their reports cards. But unless you have a detailed quantitative system for grading work assignments, email correspondence, conference call participation, colleague interaction, and every leadership quality (I sincerely hope you don’t), it’s difficult to slap a numeric rating on an employee at the end of the year.

Business is ultimately about the creation of value, connectedness, and relationships. So shouldn’t our evaluation of our teams be more…relational?

We aren’t human resources experts at Colour Outside. We’re brand experts, and we’re digital marketing experts.

We are passionate, however, about workplace culture and human flourishing.

So, I want to share with you our version of the employee performance review. While I’m certain it’s not perfect, it has all the features important to us at Colour Outside. This review method:

  • Is relational, conversational, personal, and thoughtful
  • Affirms the employee’s voice in the organization
  • Gives you, the supervisor, a chance to improve
  • Acknowledges employee victories and failures
  • Minimizes the need to for the supervisor to expose the employee’s flaws

Rather than deliver a report on a job well done, poorly done, or somewhere in between, we adopted five points.

That’s it.

Five points.

Four questions and one opportunity for prepared thoughts from the supervisor.

If you allow each of these to be jumping off points that lead into deeper conversation, they will surprise you with their simple effectiveness.

The Five-Point Employee Performance Review
1. How are you?
2. How are we doing?
3. How am I doing?
4. How do you think you’re doing?
5. Let me tell you how I/we think you’re doing.

1. How are you?

This question focuses on the employee’s personal well-being. It’s not a question about work performance.

Not only does this discussion provide an opportunity for employees to feel seen and valued, but they will often take the chance to share about challenging life circumstances that may be affecting their job.

Ideally you have some sense of the employee’s personal life and can ask about their spouse, kids, pets, recent vacation, and so on. If you’re a relational leader, this should feel natural, and most, if not all, of your employees will engage you in conversation. If you’re not a relational leader, or if your employees are hesitant to talk about their personal lives, it’s likely a sign you haven’t yet earned their trust. You may have some work to do.

Of course, this is not a license to be invasive, or cross personal boundaries. If an employee is unwilling or uncomfortable, or if your organization discourages certain points of dialogue, respect these boundaries. Keep in mind that it’s unprofessional, unethical, and may even be illegal to use the facts of an employee’s personal life to treat them differently (good or bad) than other employees. Employees must be hired, evaluated, and released based solely on the professional value they bring to an organization, not based on the facts of their personal lives.

The goal of personal conversation is not leverage, it’s care and relationship.

2. How are we doing?

This question gives the employee a chance to offer their thoughts on the broader team, department, or organization.

You aren’t the only one in the room with good ideas. You need to know that, and your employees need to know that you know that. What’s more, they need to be given space to voice their ideas and concerns without concern for defensiveness or retaliation.

This question can help you get a sense of whether the employee feels confidence and solidarity with the organization, and it can help you identify problem areas you didn’t know existed.

3. How am I doing?

This question asks the employee to evaluate your performance as a supervisor and as a leader.

Few questions are more vulnerable for a supervisor to ask. But you shouldn’t be afraid to ask it. What’s the worst that can happen? You learn about one of your blind spots and how you can get better. Terrible, I know.

If you aren’t ready to hear criticism from an employee when you ask this, don’t ask it. You’re not really asking an honest question. But those bold enough to ask it will earn more than they know.

Employees want leaders they trust and leaders who are honest with their own shortcomings. And those who ask this question will communicate trustworthiness and humility. In addition to the knowledge gained by the answer, you’ll cultivate the loyalty of your team.

4. How do you think you’re doing?

This question asks employees to evaluate their own professional performance.

If you have a self-aware employee who cares about their work, you’ll notice a beautiful thing happens when you ask this question. Usually, the employee will put their finger on performance issues before you ever mention them. This gives the employee a sense of autonomy, and it reduces friction in your relationship because you aren’t the only one initiating negative discussion.

More often than not, this conversation makes discussion about improvement employee-led. And wonderfully, it then allows the final point of the review to focus on all the praise you want to heap on your employee.

5. Let me tell you how I/we think you’re doing.

This point focuses on any prepared thoughts you have regarding the employee’s performance.

If the fourth point above went well, this point should be overwhelmingly positive. Take the opportunity to identify both specific and general things they did well. And of course, if any areas of improvement weren’t already discussed, take this time to do so.


At Colour Outside, we do have an annual performance review when we ask these questions and when we take time to speak to compensation.

But we don’t ask these questions only in the annual review. We ask them in one-on-one conversations throughout the year. In other words, our employees aren’t getting feedback at a single event once every twelve months; we identify problems and offer praise on a rolling, continual basis. The annual review is an opportunity for extended conversation on these topics and to formally document the discussion for the organization’s records.

Go ahead and give this framework a try in your organization. You may find that it contributes to a more attractive culture in your workplace.

— Justin Schoonmaker

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