How Managers Can Handle Performance Reviews with a Mixture of Tact and Firmness

The time of the year when managers and employees alike look forward to is the Appraisal season where they are judged and ranked on their performance over the last cycle.

While some organizations have half yearly appraisals, others have yearly appraisals and the timing depends on how the organizational HR policies view the process of ranking and performance reviews.

Whenever the appraisals are, there are some points that would help managers in conducting the reviews with a mixture of tact and firmness. The reason why both tact and firmness are required is that managers have the unenviable task of breaking bad news and good news alike to their team members.

Taking the standard bell curve as the measure, we discuss the various strategies that managers can employ during the appraisal discussions.

While good news is for those employees who have performed exceedingly well or at least good by the standards of others, the bad news is for those who have underperformed or even performed well but are unable to break into the top positions.

Indeed, the fact that most organizations rank their employees in what is known as a Bell Curve (image shown below) means that around 20% each of the employees are at the bottom and the top and the rest are in the standard level. Therefore, managers need tact to assure those with standard performance that they can do better next year and firmness with the low performers.

Bell Curve


On the other hand, managers who are breaking the outstanding news to the top performers have to guard against excessive praise since that can make the best performers feel that they can take the next year for granted.

Having said that, the managers also must show visible appreciation and effusive praise on them since the top performers are an asset to the organization. Indeed, in the same manner in which the managers have to deal firmly with the poor performers, they have to deal astutely with the standard performers and wisely with the top performers.

All this calls for a balancing act wherein the appraisal discussion for each employee is strategized in advance and the managers prepare for the same using either a checklist of the points to be covered or have a list of the pluses and minuses that they would like to let the employee know.

Indeed, as any experienced manager would attest, even the top performers need to be told about their weaknesses and areas of improvement since no matter how well an employee performs, there are bound to be some areas where he or she can do better.

Given the fact that most organizations these days believe in continuous improvement, there is no reason for not letting all the employees know irrespective of which percentile they belong to. On the other hand, managers must also let the employees what their achievements are since that would help the employees to figure out the specific areas that they have to focus on.

Just as employees have to work on their weaknesses, they have to focus on what they are doing well to sustain their performance and also what they the organizational focus areas are so that they are aligned to the organizational strategies.

No discussion about employee appraisals is complete without mentioning how managers must approach the bottom 20% of the performers. Indeed, this is perhaps the most difficult part as the message has to be sent out to such employees that they must either shape up or ship out.

As for the very bottom who are being considered to be placed in PIPs or Performance Improvement Plans, it is usually the case that the HR manager is also made part of the appraisal discussion in order to “read out the rules” which mandate employees who are placed on notice.

Therefore, this calls for firmness and a certain ability to break the bad news keeping personal feelings and relationships aside. Indeed, this is called “transactional orientation” wherein managers are asked to separate feelings from the decision which is supposed to be based on purely objective reasons.

Perhaps a trickier or the trickiest part of the appraisal process is the discussion with the employees who are good and above others but who were unable to break into the top bracket.

Indeed, of all the discussions, this is the one where tact is called for since it is often the case that those employees who believe they ought to have been in the top league question the rationale behind not placing them there.

This is the reason why most discussions with these percentile extend into second and third meetings as each side comes prepared with their reasons and justifications.

Further, it is also the case that unless the manager is convincing enough, the employee might just leave the organization or takes the matter to the HR both of which can be avoided if the manager explains the reasons in a manner that is convincing to the employee rather than the manager.

Indeed, this is the reason why managers alternate the meetings with each percentile so that they can “mix it up” which means that they deal with a top performer first which lightens up the mood, deal with a bottom performer which brings them back to reality, and then deal with a standard performer where extreme rationality and persuasion are needed to let the employee know that he or she is good but not good enough to make it to the top grade.

Thus, in all cases, managers have a tough ask when it comes to appraisal discussions where the need to act firmly when needed, act with tact as the situation demands, and show guarded praise are all essential skills.

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