83% of technical managers feel confident having career conversations with their employees. But only 66% of technologists feel comfortable talking with their managers about their career aspirations.
This disconnect can make it tricky to navigate employee performance reviews. But establishing open communication around employee performance can help. We put together these seven performance review tips so you and your direct reports can hold career conversations comfortably and confidently.
How to prepare for a performance review: 7 tips for technical managers
Our 2023 State of Upskilling report found that most technologists (46%) prefer to receive feedback about their tech skill proficiency during annual performance reviews. But many also favor monthly career conversations (39%) and weekly one-on-ones (32%).
In this article, we focus on the annual review since it’s the most popular option. But you can use these tips for any type of work performance or career conversation.
1. Align your review to established goals and expectations
Goals and expectations lay the foundation of employee performance management and career conversations. Yet 11% of technologists say their manager never speaks to them about their career goals.
If your technologists don’t know your team and organizational goals, they won’t know if they’re meeting your expectations. They may also struggle to define their own goals. This can lead to unexpected performance feedback.
You can bypass any unwelcome surprises by clearly defining performance expectations for each role. Your expectations for a new college grad should be different from your expectations for a senior software engineer.
Make sure your direct reports understand the criteria you’ll use to evaluate performance before the review. Job descriptions can help you determine baseline employee performance expectations.
>>> Get tips to improve the developer experience (and speed up software delivery).
2. Set aside time to prepare for the performance review
Regardless of your organization’s software development culture, performance evaluations can be nerve-wracking for technical managers and direct reports.
The last thing you want to do is add to their stress by framing feedback in an insensitive way. Prep time will ensure you say exactly what you want to say—the way you want to say it.
Before the meeting, set aside some time to:
Review the employee’s goals, achievements, and areas for improvement (past performance reviews and one-on-one docs are a great place to start)
Obtain peer feedback from other team members
Identify the key points you want to discuss during the meeting
Consider how you’ll handle strong responses or reactions to your feedback
>>> Learn what your technologists want out of career conversations.
3. Track the right performance metrics
Nearly one-third of developers are uncertain about their team’s metric usage. They’re either unaware of whether their technical managers and leaders track software metrics, or their team may use different metrics inconsistently.
To clear up this uncertainty, define performance metrics with your team and make sure your direct reports have visibility into these measures. Focus on healthy metrics whenever possible.
A healthy metric is one that measures the “right” thing for your team. It’s also used consistently and focuses on effort and process (not just output). For example, lines of code written may not be as important as tracking how efficient those lines of code are.
Some other work performance metrics your team might track include:
Number of projects completed
Metrics can help you provide specific and objective feedback during employee performance reviews. But they're a starting point, not a final destination. Use them to get a conversation started, then seek additional context from your direct report as needed.
>>> These are the four factors that drive software developer productivity.
4. Consider soft skills and continuous learning in your performance review
It’s impossible to distill employee performance into a single number. Likewise, some performance indicators aren’t quantifiable. When evaluating performance, take into account soft skills in addition to hard metrics.
Consider how your direct report stacks up when it comes to their:
Flexibility and adaptability
Accountability in the workplace
One trait you’ll want to consider is your direct report’s attitude towards learning. Lifelong learning can have a direct impact on performance. Some technologists may be set in their ways and be reluctant to learn new tools and technologies. In the long run, this can lead to an increase in bugs and cybersecurity risks.
On the other hand, technologists who continuously learn are able to keep up with the latest trends and harness new technical skills faster. These technologists are often eager to contribute to the team and grow in their career.
>>> Check out 5 ways senior developers can build a learning culture.
5. Ensure work performance balances achievements with areas of improvement
Your performance evaluation should strike a balance between celebrating wins and identifying areas for improvement.
Take the time to recognize your direct report’s accomplishments. In addition to project achievements, you might share specific examples of times when an engineer’s work had a positive impact on customers or other teams across the organization.
Don’t be afraid to share constructive feedback and clear examples of areas of improvement. Provide specific, actionable guidance on how the engineer can improve or enhance their skills in certain areas. Follow up during your next one-on-one to set goals that address your feedback together.
6. Prepare your direct report for the performance review meeting
Your organization likely has a performance review template you can use. (If not, you can find one online.) Most reviews include a section of accomplishments, opportunities for improvement, and a summary of overall performance and skill development.
Once you’ve written your review, make sure your direct report is prepared for whatever you’ll discuss during the meeting. You might share the document with them beforehand or provide a brief overview of what to expect, especially if some feedback might be sensitive. This gives them time to digest the information, work through any intense emotions, and come prepared to discuss.
7. Allocate time strategically during the performance review meeting
If you haven’t already shared the performance evaluation with your direct report, start the meeting by telling them that they’ll get a written copy of your feedback. This allows them to focus on the present moment, rather than scrambling to write down your feedback.
Spend the first half of the meeting discussing their completed goals, projects, and other accomplishments. Spend the second half looking ahead at areas of improvement and discussing potential new goals they can focus on for their next review.
Create a culture of open communication
Being transparent is important. Build your performance reviews on psychological safety and open communication so your technologists feel safe expressing themselves.
Reserve some time for your direct report to share their thoughts and feelings with you. They may have questions or push back against feedback. They may also provide a new perspective that you, as a technical manager, weren’t aware of.
You may need to hold follow-up meetings to solidify new goals or resolve concerns. Even a quick check-in via Slack can open new lines of communication and empower your direct report to share additional thoughts.
Performance reviews impact retention—for worse or for better
55% of technologists will leave their current organization to explore new opportunities. And 21% say they’re likely to leave because they want more support from their direct leader or technology manager.
Effective employee performance reviews can address both retention risks. When you conduct performance evaluations with open communication, you build trust. Your direct reports are more likely to share their true goals and professional development aspirations.
And when you can help them find matching opportunities in your current organization, you show them you support their growth in any direction.
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