Four Ways to Build Trust in Employee Performance Reviews – Do You “Meet Expectations?”

When it comes to building trust through performance evaluations, do you “meet expectations?” As we near the end of the year, many leaders are busy preparing and conducting annual performance reviews for their employees. I don’t know of too many leaders who are overjoyed at the prospect of spending hours compiling data, completing forms, and writing evaluations for their team members. Most leaders I speak to look at performance reviews as a tedious and mandatory chore they’re obligated to complete and they can’t wait to have the review meeting, deliver the feedback as quickly and painlessly possible, and get on with their “real” work.

With that kind of attitude, it’s no wonder why performance reviews are a dreaded event, both from the supervisor’s and employee’s perspective! The reality is that performance reviews are one-of-a-kind opportunities for leaders to build trust and commitment with their followers. Having the right supporting processes and systems in place are helpful, but regardless of your organization’s approach to performance management, you can build trust with your team members by doing these four things:

1. Deliver candid feedback with care – One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a leader is to sugarcoat your feedback to an employee. Your employees deserve honest and sincere feedback about how they’re performing so that they have the opportunity to improve, otherwise you are handicapping them and limiting the capabilities of your organization by accepting sub-par performance. Unfortunately, many employees don’t hear about their poor performance until the situation has become critical and they’re put on a performance improvement plan. A look back through their personnel file reveals a series of performance reviews where they’ve met standards and suddenly they’re surprised with this bad news. There shouldn’t be any surprises in a performance review. Through regular conversations during the year, the employee should have received regular feedback about how they’re performing relative to their goals and competencies of their role. I think most people know if they aren’t performing up to snuff. Your people will trust and respect you more if you’re honest with them about their performance.

2. Listen – Don’t do all the talking during the performance review. Yes, you have to review their performance and deliver feedback, but you should also take the time to ask your employees how they felt about their performance. Ask open-ended questions like: “What did you learn this year?” “What would you do differently?” “What did you feel were your biggest successes?” Soliciting the thoughts and opinions of your employees sends the message that you care about what they think and that you don’t assume you have all the answers. You’ll learn valuable insights about what makes your people tick and you can use that information to help plan their future performance. Lending a listening ear is a great way to build trust.

3. Focus on the future – Wait…aren’t performance reviews about reviewing the past? Yes, they are, but in my opinion the real bang for the buck is using that information to focus on growth and development opportunities for your people. Learning from the past is essential, but it’s only valuable if we apply it to the future. What training or education is needed? What are some new stretch goals that can be established? In what ways can the employee leverage his/her strengths with new opportunities? Demonstrating to your employees that you are committed to their career growth builds trust in your leadership and commitment to the organization. Don’t miss this valuable opportunity by solely focusing on the past!

4. Ask for feedback on your leadership – I’m not suggesting you shift the spotlight from your employees to yourself and hijack their review in order to feed your ego, but I am suggesting you ask them two simple questions: “Am I providing you the right amount of direction and support on your goals/tasks?” and “Is there anything I should do more or less of next year to help you succeed?” One of your primary goals as a leader is to accomplish work through others. Their performance is a reflection of your skill as a leader so it’s only appropriate that you use this time to recalibrate the leadership style(s) you’ve been providing. It may come as a surprise, but have you thought that the reason why your people aren’t achieving their goals is because you’re not leading them properly? Make sure that’s not the case and get feedback on how you’re doing. Asking for (and graciously receiving) feedback from others is a trust-boosting behavior.

Performance reviews don’t have to be a painful, tedious, mundane task. If you approach them with the right mindset, they can be prime opportunities to build trust with your followers which in turn will help them, and you, to not only meet expectations but exceed them!

This is one in a series of LeaderChat articles on the topic of trust by Randy Conley, Trust Practice Leader at The Ken Blanchard Companies. For more insights on trust, visit the Leading with Trust blog or follow Randy on Twitter @RandyConley.

13 thoughts on “Four Ways to Build Trust in Employee Performance Reviews – Do You “Meet Expectations?”

  1. I stopped doing annual performance appraisals decades ago. They are just make-work and job security for the health and happiness department (human resources). I do monthly coaching conversations with each of my executives. That way, we can make very minor mid-course corrections before the Titanic hits the ice berg-and there are no surprises on either side.

    • Excellent move. Why wait for the review? That would be like a coach waiting until the game was over to talk to the quarterback. Regular coaching with a game plan really eliminates the need for the formal review. If the performance is there, we know we are on track. If not, NOW is the time to address it.

    • So true! I have always said, if an employee is blindsighted by a termination, someone was not managing their job! Coaching is much more effective at indirectly managing your business bottom line by directly managing the relationships and expectations with your human capital! 🙂

    • Steven – Your monthly coaching sessions and mid-course corrections are the key. Regardless if there is an “official” yearly performance review or not, smart leaders hold regular performance discussions with their folks so they can keep performance on track. We use a process that involves “quarterly conversations” where we revisit the goals that have been set, check off the completed ones, and set new ones as appropriate. In addition we have regular 1on1 meetings (varying frequency) to provide real time coaching and support.

      Thanks for your insightful comments.


  2. Ken,
    You raise some interesting challenges for people in a supervisory capacity. I have found that the biggest challenge with delivering the candid feedback, and with listening, is that many “leaders” are not comfortable with addressing difficult situations. These “leaders” don’t take the time to deliver the feedback “with care”, because they lack the assertiveness skills to do so. The required “listening” also does not take place because their discomfort with delivering challenging feedback manifests itself in the form of the “rambling” by the person delivering the feedback.
    I am of the opinion that inability to address difficult situations is one of the biggest barriers to leadership success.
    I’m curious what your thoughts are.

    • Hi Lee. You bring up a common problem. As you point out, many leaders are afraid or ill-equipped to have candid performance discussions with people so sub-par performance never gets fully addressed and everyone suffers as a result. I think it takes emotional intelligence and maturity for a leader to have these challenging conversations and I think leaders also need to be taught the skills on how to do it. I’d recommend you check out our Challenging Conversations materials as a helpful place to start. Here’s a blog article I wrote back in August that addresses this topic:

      Take care,


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