8 counterintuitive tips for IT performance reviews

8 counterintuitive tips for IT performance reviews

Do you dread annual performance reviews? Do your employees? Go from obligation to opportunity with these ideas that buck tradition

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Annual performance reviews can evoke strong feelings of dread in everyone involved. Employees may be nervous about what their boss will say about their performance and how they stack up to their peers. Managers may feel annoyed by the whole process, handed down by HR - a box they have to check off. Or they may dread having some difficult performance conversations they’ve been putting off.

If you can relate, it might be time to rethink your approach to performance reviews. 

“Moving away from more traditional or scripted performance reviews is especially important in IT,” says Jonathan Feldman, CIO of the city of Asheville, NC. IT employees have no shortage of job options these days, he notes. “That said, everyone is accountable and most people appreciate coaching – it’s how you approach coaching as their leader that matters.”

The traditional approach to performance reviews falls short for IT leaders in a number of ways.

The traditional approach to performance reviews falls short for IT leaders in a number of ways. For one, it typically happens on an annual basis. For an industry that’s always changing, once a year simply isn’t enough, says Feldman, who suggests bumping the frequency to quarterly, or even monthly.

Another issue is the format, which often consists of a written analysis based on cold hard facts and figures. While many in IT appreciate a data-driven performance assessment, numbers on paper don’t tell the whole story of a person’s value. When it comes to performance reviews, people with the most coveted skills in IT want to see a little emotional intelligence in play, says Feldman.

“Are you treating everyone with dignity and respect? If not, you will likely lose your best and brightest talent,” he says. “In an industry where we are always competing for talent, remember that the people who care the most about the way they are treated also tend to have the strongest soft skills, which are gold in IT.”

[ Is that valued team member looking for a new job? Read also:  IT talent: 6 signs your star talent may leave. ]

IT performance reviews: 8 ideas leaders can try

Read on for eight ways to shake up the traditional performance review process in your organization.

1. Don’t bring a script

“Earlier in my career, I thought performance reviews were scripted, like classical music. It’s actually more like jazz or improv. If you go in with a script, you are poised to praise or criticize based on what you think you know. You might even have a written statement or assessment for them to review. But as soon as you put your review in writing, you put up walls between you and your employees.

“As soon as you put your review in writing, you put up walls between you and your employees.”

“Leaders need to recognize that they don’t have all the information. That’s why I approach performance reviews as conversations – it’s more about asking clarifying questions versus making statements about what employees did or did not accomplish. Questions give voice to employees, empower them, make them feel heard, and, importantly, the answers give you the information you need and a richer understanding of what’s going on.” - Jonathan Feldman, CIO of the city of Asheville, NC

2. Review teams instead of individuals

“I find that traditional performance reviews, where ratings and rankings take center stage, do little to improve the performance of employees. Often it hampers their performance as they struggle with their ratings, try to make sense of performance feedback and how it will affect compensation. In my opinion, this approach benchmarks performance based on how individuals compare to one another – acknowledging and rewarding the stars on your team while leaving those who perform well but aren’t over-performers to receive ratings that aren’t indicative of their contribution to the team overall.

“Instead, I like to place greater importance on teams instead of individuals and focus on providing continual feedback and coaching. To support this, instead of setting annual goals with my staff, I like to collaboratively develop objectives that are more fluid and changeable to match the objectives of the company. I also ensure to have frequent feedback discussions rather than annual ones to discuss these goals, project learnings, and successes.

“Provide forward-looking coaching for development that focuses on improvement for the future.”

“Finally, it is extremely important to provide forward-looking coaching for development that focuses on improvement for the future. This will ultimately help build a team that will continually perform successfully, which is really what all leaders want. While identifying clear over-performers and under-performers is important, traditional performance reviews and ratings will not develop the workforce overall.” Sanjay Malhotra, CTO of Clearbridge Mobile.

3. Try micro-coaching

“Don’t wait for annual reviews to give feedback. Micro-coaching on a regular basis helps address issues before they get out of hand, so annual performance reviews won’t have surprises that may have been festering all year long. To do micro-coaching right, make sure the recipient stays receptive to feedback on a continual basis. 

“But don’t overdo it, as it may come off as micro-managing or being overly critical. One way to get the balance right is to ensure regular feedback includes both the good and the bad. And don’t dwell on the past – it can’t be changed. Try: ‘How would you do this differently in the future?’” - David Egts, chief technologist, North America public sector for Red Hat.

4. Ask peers to review each other

“The thing that always frustrated me about my annual performance reviews was that it always seemed I was filling them out myself.”

“The thing that always frustrated me about my annual performance reviews was that it always seemed I was filling them out myself. My manager would simply send me an email with a few questions: Provide three strengths with examples, three weaknesses with examples, and three projects you’ve worked on that you’d like to highlight. Unless you kept copious notes throughout the year, you were suddenly left struggling to remember every project you’ve had your hands in over the past year.

“When I was in a position to give performance reviews, I decided I wasn’t going to do that. I understand the point is to ensure engineers and technicians are self-aware because they’re more likely to accept criticism of issues they’ve acknowledged, but there’s also something disheartening in realizing that you have the same weaknesses you had the year before.

“What I do, and it’s certainly strange, I’ll admit, is get all employees to fill out reviews of their peers. I keep it limited to the teams so that it doesn’t get too overwhelming. Nobody will be more honest than a co-worker with the protection of anonymity. This can give leaders a true measure of their employees. Of course, you’ll need to filter these comments into something actionable for the employee, but it’s doable and, I’ve found, better for all employees in the long run.” - Jason David, CEO of Software Portal


Carla Rudder is a writer and editor for The Enterprisers Project. As content manager, she enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.  Previously, Carla worked at a PR agency with clients across the digital marketing and technology industry.

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