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5 most meaningful questions to ask in a performance review as a leader

Meaningful feedback can come when we focus on these five questions to ask in a performance review.

With performance review season upon us, a frequent question I receive is: “What questions to ask in a performance review?”

I won’t lie. I’m not a fan of performance reviews (you can read why here).

But sometimes, as leaders, it’s out of our hands: We’re a part of a company that’s leaned on performance reviews for a while. Or perhaps we’re reluctant adopters and use performance reviews because we haven’t yet discovered a better alternative.

(Psst! A better alternative to performance reviews does exist and we’re launching it in January 2022).

I hear you. And I want to help.

To make the most of the performance reviews you’re already doing, here are the most meaningful questions to ask in a performance review as a leader – for yourself, and from your team.

As a leader, ask these questions…

#1: What should I start, stop, or continue doing?

This is a classic question for good reason. I call it a “catch-all” question: It opens up many areas for people to share feedback with you without resorting to a generic question such as “What should I improve?”

#2: What can I improve about my communication, in terms of both content (e.g., priorities, decisons, etc.) and style (e.g., tone, frequency, etc.)?

Communication is the crux of what we do as leaders. And so, it’s paramount that we ask for feedback on it, and include it as one of the questions to ask in a performance review. This question is excellent at zooming in on the two aspects of communication you’ll want feedback on as a leader: (1) What you’re communicating, and (2) How you’re communicating those things.

#3: What more can I be doing to help you navigate uncertainty?

Oftentimes, performance reviews will include questions such as “Am I giving you enough direction?” or “How well do I set our goals?”… But what we really should be asking about is the underlying reason for why we need direction and goals in the first place: To navigate uncertainty in order for us to make progress. We as leaders are “sense makers,” as described by scholar Karl Weick, and we should ask a question on this in our feedback process – be it performance reviews or an alternative system.

#4: How well have I been following through on the things I’ve promised?

Following through on our commitments as leaders is one of the top ways for us to build trust in our teams. Thus, it’s critical that one of the questions to ask in a performance review encompasses this concept. Use this question as a barometer for how well you’ve established cognitive trust – not just relational trust – so you understand how much your team feels they can depend on you.

#5: What are the things I’ve done that were particularly helpful or unhelpful?

This question can be particularly powerful due to its framing of “helpfulness.” When we ask for “what was helpful vs. unhelpful,” we focus on the value of the action, rather than the implied judgment of the person who took that action. As a result, it coaxes someone to share feedback that they might’ve been originally more reluctant to give.

Ideally, as a leader, these are questions you are asking not just once or twice a year during performance reviews – but consistently and regularly, so you can be constantly improving your own performance.

Our alternative to performance reviews will encompass a more regular cadence of asking meaningful questions, just like this. Sign-up here to get alerted when it launches in January 2022.

Now, for your direct reports, you may be wondering what questions to ask in a performance review for them? Here are our recommendations below.

Have your direct reports ask you these questions…

  • What should I start, stop, or continue doing?
  • How is the quality of my work output? Any observations for what I could be doing better?
  • What’s something affecting our work dynamic and ability to get great work done?
  • To what degree do you think am I focused on the right things in my role?
  • What advice might you share with me to help me level up and further improve my work?

To ask these questions – and more – on a recurring basis, you’ll want to sign-up to be alerted for when our performance review alternative launches.

Whether these are questions you ask directly in a performance review or outside of them, I look forward to hearing the conversation, insights, and ultimately positive shifts in behavior that they inspire.

Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.

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