The year-end review: a guide for managers

The end of each year is a natural opportunity for reflection, in life and in work. In this context the year-end review with each of your team members provides an opportunity for you to step back from the day-to-day and take a more holistic perspective.

What is a year-end review?

The basics: a year-end review is a 1-1 meeting that takes place between a manager and each of their direct reports.

Some companies call this meeting a year-end performance review, or a year-end evaluation (or a year-end performance evaluation!). However, if you focus the meeting entirely on the performance of your team member, you’re missing an important opportunity.

Ideally, the year-end review meeting is a collaborative discussion that looks back at the past year, looks forward to the coming year, and is an integral part of your approach to performance management.  

Defining your goals

What do you think might be some reasonable goals for a year-end review meeting? (How you choose to answer that question will say a lot about who you are as a manager!)

Here’s how I would define the goals:

  • Connect with your team member and get a deeper understanding of their experience of the year: their highs, their lows, what they’ve enjoyed, what they’ve struggled with, and their current views on their role and the organization.
  • Reach a shared understanding of your team member’s performance over the past year (what they have done well, and what they have done less well too).
  • Prepare for the year ahead: explore how you’ll work together, the support they need, initial ideas around personal development goals for the coming year. All this should be in the context of any significant changes that you and the team will be experiencing.

How to prepare for each year-end review

Here are the actions that you’ll need to take, to prepare for this year-end review meeting with each of your team members.

Review the feedback you’ve already provided, and their role profile

The year-end review is not a time to surprise your team member with unexpected feedback on their performance. (Performance feedback is something that you should be doing on an ongoing basis through-out the year!).

Make sure that you reflect on the feedback you’ve provided across the year. The feedback you’ve already shared should be front-of-mind and the foundation for your year-end discussions.

Also, pull out the role profile (job description) for your team member. It will become a useful reference in the meeting (see below!).

Reflect on your mindset and possible biases

Your mindset should be collaborative, in support of your team member and solution oriented. Before each meeting it’s worth checking in with yourself, is that the case?

It’s also worth checking your biases. For example, recency bias is very natural and common. It simply means basing the discussion on the last few weeks or months (let’s face it, they are easiest to remember!) rather than the entire year.

This paycor.com article does a great job of summarizing the top 10 performance review biases.

Define any specific goals for each team member

Finally, consider any specific goals that you have for individual team members. For example:

  • For an under-performing team member, you may want to agree more regular 1-1 check-ins as part of how you approach the new year
  • For a team member who has joined during the year, you may want to explore how they have settled into the role
  • For a high-performing team member, you may want to discuss finding them a Mentor and other opportunities to raise their profile within your business

Having this clarity in advance of the meetings will ensure that you get the outcomes you want from each discussion.

Set up the year-end review meetings with your team members

Here’s an example of how to communicate in advance of the meeting. You can use it as an email template and edit it as required. You can also deliver the same key messages in your team meetings.

I’ll be setting up 1-1 year-end review meetings with each of you, to take place over the coming two weeks.

These meetings are an opportunity for us to discuss your performance over the past year, talk about what you need from me too, and how we can work more effectively together to set ourselves up for success in the coming year.

In advance of the meeting, please reflect on the following questions:

Your experience of work this year

  • What have you enjoyed this year, the ‘highs’ at work?
  • What have you not enjoyed this year, the ‘lows’ at work?
  • How are you currently feeling about your role and working life at [company name]?

Your performance this year

  • What have you done well this year?
  • What have you done less well this year?
  • What have you learnt this year?

Preparing for the year ahead

  • What would you like me to do differently?
  • What questions do you have about the coming year?
  • What development opportunities do you see in the coming year, for yourself?

I look forward to the discussion and the opportunity for us to discuss your performance, how I can support you more effectively and how we can set ourselves up for success next year.

Why is this messaging so important? Because year-end reviews can generate a lot of emotion (and not always positive emotions!).

If your team members feel that you are there to help them, and that the discussions are balanced and supportive, it will enable you both to approach any difficult conversations with more confidence.

8 steps for conducting year-end reviews

These 8 steps provide you with a flow to your year-end review meetings. In summary they are:

  1. Set the right tone
  2. Start with their experience of work this year
  3. Ask big, open questions to understand your team member’s perspective
  4. Provide structured, evidence-based feedback
  5. Reach agreement on their performance this year
  6. Set the tone for the coming year
  7. Explore their development needs
  8. Wrap up by summarizing next steps

Let’s jump in!

1. Set the right tone

When you’re opening the meeting take the opportunity to reassure your team member this this is going to be a balanced conversation. Use similar words to your earlier comms, for example:

This meeting is an opportunity for us to discuss your performance over the past year, talk about how I can better support you, and how we can set ourselves up for success in the coming year.

Short and sweet, it sets that right tone for the meeting. You can also add that the meeting will be structured around the questions that you’ve asked them to consider.

2. Start with their experience of work this year

There are so many benefits to starting the meeting with your team member’s perspective on their year. Here are just a few:

  • It gives them an opportunity to talk, which will put them at ease
  • It shows that you value their perspective of the year
  • Their answers will provide valuable context to the rest of the discussion

On this last point, imagine that towards the end of the meeting you discover that they’re not happy with their role and are considering their options. Much better that you surface this early in the conversation, it will provide context to the discussion and allow you to adjust your planned outcomes.

Getting started is very simple, something like:

I’d like to start with your perspective on the year, and let’s start with the positives, what have been the highlights of your year?

Then go on to probe, explore and then introduce the remaining two questions on this topic that you’ve asked them to reflect on.

3. Ask big, open questions to understand your team member’s perspective

Through-out the meeting you can encourage discussion by asking big, open questions. Here are a few examples:

  • What are your thoughts on this?
  • How do you feel about this?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • Can you share a little more detail so that I understand this better?
  • How does what you’re saying relate to…?
  • What are your suggestions?
  • What opportunities (or problems!) can you see?
  • What have you learnt?
  • What will you do differently next time?

And remember, listen to the responses! Here’s more on how to be a better listener.

4. Provide structured, evidence-based feedback

As you listen, be ready to share structured, evidence-based feedback. This should reflect the feedback you’ve provided through-out the year. As mentioned earlier, now is not the time to be surprising your team members with unexpected feedback!

In our effective feedback article there’s more on providing feedback. You’ll need to adjust the structure a little to make it work in a year-end review meeting. It will look like this:

  1. “Earlier in the year we discussed… (the specific behavior)”
  2. “As I said at the time, the result of that behavior was… (the consequences)”
  3. “Since then I can see that… (change, or lack of, since that conversation)”

Sometimes you can follow this up with a congratulatory comment, or, if you haven’t seen the change, ask the question:

What are your thoughts in this?

Much better to get the team member talking first so that you can understand their perspective. It will inform the rest of the conversation.

5. Reach agreement on their performance this year

This is a key outcome of a year-end review. It’s important that you reach a shared understanding of your team member’s performance over the past year, as this provides the foundation for progress.

And there comes a time in many year-end reviews when there is some level of disagreement on performance. Look out for these disagreements, they might be obvious, or they might just be quizzical look from your team member, or a shrug of the shoulders.

This is the moment when you need to bring all your communication skills into play, you’re starting a difficult conversation.

At these times, it’s important to be familiar with your team member’s role profile (job description). This is (literally!) the contract with your team member. If it’s well written it will define the responsibilities and competencies expected. And in this type of discuss it can become a ‘higher authority’. Rather than saying “I expect you to…” where possible say “Your role requires that…” (and then discuss the behavior that you’ve seen, relative to the role profile).

This can be useful to recognize outstanding performance, as well as to manage under performance!

The points you raise should be firm and clear, and the tone should be caring and compassionate.

Here are more performance review phrases that may be useful reference both in the meeting and as you document the review.

6. Set the tone for the coming year

The year-end review is not just about looking back! Take the opportunity to set yourselves up for success too.

Now is the time to ask how you can better support your team member. You might frame it in terms of “keep, start, stop”.

  • What would you like me to keep doing?
  • What would you like me to start doing?
  • What would you like me to stop doing?

And now is also the time to talk about any major change initiatives that you’re aware of in the coming year and the impact that they will have on the team. You don’t need to share a lot of detail, just introduce the initiatives, then ask if there are any questions.

7. Explore their development needs

Finally, in the context of all the discussion you’ve just had, ask your team member their initial thoughts on development opportunities over the coming year (this is the last question you asked them to reflect on in advance of the meeting).

Again, you don’t need to go into a lot of detail, it’s about identifying themes. One of the actions coming out of this year-end review is to schedule a goal setting meeting (including personal development goals), that will be the time to go into more detail.

8. Wrap up the year-end review by summarizing next steps

That’s it! All that’s left is for you summarize next steps and thank your team member.

As I mentioned earlier, the year-end review meeting should be an integral part of your approach to performance management. To achieve this there are 3 actions to take as next steps, share these action items with your team member as you wrap up:

Document the key points. There needs to be a record of the key points for future reference. It may be as simple as an email, or you may have a performance management system to record the outcomes.

Schedule a goal setting meeting (including personal goals). By doing this you’re making the connection from the current year into the next year. Take a look at FAST goals for a relatively new and impactful approach.

Schedule a career conversation meeting. Take this opportunity to schedule a career conversation too. Including this action in your next steps is a further demonstration of your commitment to supporting your team member.

Year-end review meetings, in summary

Year-end reviews are a natural opportunity for you to step back from your day-to-day and take a more holistic perspective.

There are three goals that I would recommend:

  • Reach a shared understanding of your team member’s performance over the past year
  • Connect with your team member and get a deeper understanding of their experience of the year
  • Prepare for the year ahead: explore how you’ll work together, the support they need, initial ideas around personal development goals for the coming year

Set up the meeting by asking your team members to reflect on the 9 questions that I’ve provided.

Make sure that your mindset is collaborative, in support of your team member and solution oriented.

And follow the 8-step structure that I’ve provided to achieve success!

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