How to reduce anxiety around performance reviews through conversations

No-one likes appraisals do they? Diane Strohfus has a good alternative.

Reading time: 3m 30s.

No one looks forward to annual performance reviews. The lengthy, backward-looking discussions cause a great deal of anxiety for both employees and their managers. It might seem counterintuitive, but the best way to reduce anxiety for everyone involved is to have more conversations.

Frequent, lightweight conversations that take place throughout the year as part of a continuous programme enable everyone to constantly improve their skills and reduce anxiety. This ongoing cadence of lightweight conversations also ensures everyone is aligned around key priorities and facilitates valuable two-way feedback that can be used to coach both managers and employees.

Before you can reduce anxiety around performance reviews, it’s important to understand what creates anxiety in the first place. For employees, anxiety comes from the unknown: not knowing how their manager feels about them, not knowing how their manager feels about their work, not knowing how they’re contributing to the company’s mission.

For managers, anxiety also comes from the unknown: not knowing how to judge an employee’s performance over the course of a year, during which time goals and responsibilities may have changed, and not knowing how an employee will receive feedback.

When conversations are more frequent, they also require less preparation.

A continuous performance management process replaces annual performance reviews with more frequent and forward-looking conversations between employees and their managers.

These conversations play a key role in reducing the anxiety associated with these types of conversations, because when employees and managers meet more often—say, every other month or quarterly— they become better at and more used to them.

When companies make frequent conversations the rule, employees begin to fear them less because they know that a conversation with their manager doesn’t automatically mean that something is wrong. Nor does it feel like a ‘make-it-or-break-it’ scenario in which the future of their job hinges on the outcome of a single discussion.

Instead, employees have frequent opportunities to get feedback and course correct, if necessary. They know how their work is perceived by management. The conversations become a normal part of everyone’s workflow where both employees and managers can ensure that goals are still relevant, and employees have the resources they need to accomplish them.

And the quality of feedback tends to improve as this comfort level increases, which positively impacts growth and development.


When conversations are more frequent, they also require less preparation. Managers don’t have to review 12 months’ worth of reports and emails, while employees don’t need to gather evidence of contributions and achievements made earlier in the year that may have been forgotten. All of this is fresh in everyone’s memory. Less time preparing for these conversations means less anxiety for everyone. 

Let’s not forget: practice makes perfect. The more often managers and employees sit down to have lightweight conversations, the more productive these conversations become–and the less anxiety everyone will experience.

Managers get better at coaching their direct reports, and employees become more comfortable receiving that coaching. Expectations for the conversations are clearly established with discussion topics identified beforehand, which means there are no surprises.

The content of these conversations is also important for reducing anxiety. When conducted correctly, they deliver value to employees and they will actually begin to look forward to them.

Conversations should focus on developmental areas and opportunities, ensuring alignment with both short and long-term goals and identifying where employees need additional support to achieve those goals. The focus shouldn’t be on judging the employee’s performance but on determining how employees can be supported to make contributions that are in line with the company’s mission and objectives.

These conversations also give employees an opportunity to understand that alignment on a regular basis. This is key to employee motivation and engagement. Employees want – and need – to know that they contribute to something larger than themselves.

This approach also creates a much more cohesive relationship between managers and employees. Employees feel invested in, and developed with regular feedback and performance and development focus. The frequency allows for them to get to know one another better. Amnd given the frequent opportunities to have managerial conversations, we find that managers actually become better managers.

Annual performance reviews put a lot of pressure on employees and managers alike. This pressure leads to anxiety, which can impact the quality and outcome of the conversation.

When executed as part of a continuous performance management program, frequent, lightweight conversations help employees and managers overcome their anxiety and focus on what’s important: helping the employee and the business be successful.


About the author

Diane Strohfus is CHRO at Betterworks


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