First-Time Manager? Here's How to Give a Performance Review that Motivates and Retains



Over the course of my career, I have received many performance reviews. While some have been productive, many have been formulaic and demotivating. Often, I would look forward to affirmation about my achievements and ideas for future improvement, but instead just received a series of “scores” accompanied by little supporting detail or generic comments.

When I became a manager, I made a commitment to giving better annual reviews. I wanted to leave my employees feeling positive—about their contributions, their relationship with their supervisor, and their opportunities for growth. And, most importantly, I wanted to empower them to be active participants in evaluating their own performance.

If you’re also a first-time (or a long-time) manager looking to give reviews that empower and inspire, here are some best practices that you can apply when giving your annual reviews:


In order to make the most of the annual review for you and your employee, it’s crucial that you have consistent communication about their performance throughout the year. That way, their review is not the first time you’ve discussed their goals and performance. 

First, be sure that you are setting—and documenting—clear and measurable expectations on an ongoing basis, based on individual growth objectives, team responsibilities, and company values. And don’t forget to tell them what your own personal goals are—this will give them a sense that you are in it together!

Of course, expectations and goals don’t mean much if they don’t serve as a guiding light for the team throughout the year, so be sure to reference them in your regular meetings with your direct reports, when new tasks or projects are assigned, and when there are ad hoc opportunities for praise or feedback.

This year-long review approach will also ensure you avoid the common pitfall of basing the review around one event that has recently occurred.


Many companies have formal processes for annual reviews that include mandatory rubrics for the employer and employee to both complete. These appraisal forms often require managers to “score” their employee on a variety of criteria.

In my experience, this way of conducting an evaluation can be limiting, as it prevents mutual discussion and problem-solving. It can also cause employees to feel reduced to numbers or statistics.

If it’s not an option for you to abandon the required rubric, push yourself to supplement the form with other, more personalized feedback. Try a cover sheet that captures the year in review from your perspective or that outlines specific examples to discuss. 


Don’t just limit the feedback you provide to your own. If a “360 review” is not part of your company’s process, make it one by soliciting input and thoughts from others within the organization who are very familiar with your employee’s performance.

Be sure to be representative across roles—a good rule of thumb is to include another individual at a supervisory level, a peer from another department, and a peer from the same department. 

Also, be sure to structure the feedback request so that answers are useful and consistent. This is a format that’s worked well for me in the past:

  • What should [employee name] continue to do?
  • What should [employee name] stop doing?
  • What should [employee name] start doing?


You wouldn’t present to a board member or client without providing clear examples that support your “ask” or idea, so be sure not to deliver an annual review without providing clear, specific examples.

I once had a boss who said that I could “be more effective in meetings”—with feedback that vague, clear examples of when and how I had been less successful would have been very useful.

It’s also key to balance your feedback by highlighting how certain areas for improvement can also be great strengths. You can do this by trying to understand root causes. When I had an employee who had difficulty seeing the big picture, I reminded her that it was her exceptional organizational skills that sometimes caused her to focus too much on the details.


One of the biggest mistakes you can make in an annual review is to forget that it is a conversation between two human beings. 

When it comes to your employee, remember to be empathetic about the challenges they have faced over the review period. Often, there are external circumstances or business issues that can hinder an employee’s ability to perform at the highest ability, and it will be refreshing for you to proactively address that in the review.

Also, if you share or own any responsibility for any of your employee’s struggles, acknowledge that. They will respect you for your honesty and humility.


You need to treat each annual review like any other important meeting and set aside some prep time. If you throw things together last minute, you’ll end up having a much less productive discussion. Plus, obviously rushed answers, or even content copied over from a previous review, send a message that that person’s professional growth is unimportant to you.

To make the meeting as useful as possible, I recommend giving yourself enough time—probably a few weeks—to write and rewrite the documentation so that what you provide is polished. It is also important to create an outline of the main topics and points you’d like to address.


Make your employee’s annual review motivating and meaningful by using it as an opportunity to have an open, collaborative dialogue with your direct report.

The best way to do this is to avoid reading through the evaluation documentation line by line, especially since employees will have this to read on their own. Instead, try coming prepared with discussion questions that can drive the conversation forward:

  • What was the hardest thing you faced this year?
  • Which accomplishments are you the most proud of?
  • Which areas would you like to improve in? How will you know if you’re successful? 
  • What keeps you up at night when you think about your job?
  • What can I do better to support or guide you?

By shifting the agency to your employee, you are giving them the chance to have ownership over the process and leave the review with a clear understanding of next steps.


The best reviews I’ve had didn’t end when we both left the room. Instead, after the meeting, my supervisors would follow up, summarize the discussion, and immediately provide a few ideas or next steps for incorporating the feedback into my day-to-day role.

Whether it’s before, during or after the review, there is a lot you can do to proactively set your employee up for success! And, in turn, ensure the successful growth of your team.


Photos Joanne Pio

Article originally published on Career Contessa.