It has been my experience that when performance reviews turn dysfunctional, 50% of the time the issue lies with the content itself (its inaccurate, vague, political, etc…). However, for the other 50% of the time it has to do with how the feedback was delivered. Sometimes the feedback comes across as a personal attack. It’s as if our manager simply doesn’t like us. Other times the feedback comes across as a cold and callous assault. It’s almost as though our manager could care less about us as a human being. In either case, if performance feedback isn’t grounded in caring for the person with the sincere desire to see him or her improve, it just simply won’t work. And worse, bad things can happen.

Cynthia’s Story

Cynthia was an absolute rock star in her job. She had been with her company for nearly 15 years in a district sales role. Every year, there were competitions for who could get the most sales with the winner receiving an exotic trip as the prize. Only it wasn’t a competition. Cynthia won every year. She was the best, and better yet, all of the others in the organization new it, respected her for it and went to her for advice. Cynthia even started coordinating a weekly sales call with all of her peers around the globe in order to help everyone get better. This particular year, there had been a shake up at corporate and Cynthia had a new boss from a different department all together. Cynthia wasn’t clear if this new boss liked her or not, but when she received her review, things went from vague to hostile. Here were the components of her review:

  • It was vague – scribbled in messy handwriting it said: “improve your work.” Nothing more.
  • It was personal – one line read “Cynthia is too happy and bubbly all of the time. It can be annoying to others”
  • It was not grounded in results – Cynthia’s high performance and the measureable results were never mentioned – not once.
  • It was not accurate – Some of the same exact comments appeared in all of Cynthia’s co-worker’s reviews

Initially, Cynthia was devastated. She was convinced her boss didn’t like her (for signs your boss doesn’t like you, consider these) and she was searching for ways to improve. In the end, she wrote her boss off as incompetent and moved on. I don’t think the performance review process had the intended impact, do you? Sometimes no review is better than something that dysfunctional.

Pierre’s Story

Like Cynthia, Pierre was also a rock star in his job. However, unlike Cynthia, Pierre had only been in his job for less than a year. Big numbers and goals were set for Pierre and he stunned his entire company by exceeding every single goal laid out for him in year one. When the CEO of the company decided to give Pierre his review, he was planning on flying down to Pierre’s office and delivering it face-to-face. But then the CEO thought, “why don’t I make this trip efficient and invite others so we can have a strategic planning retreat while I’m in town.” Ultimately, the retreat became the focus of the trip, so, instead of sitting down with Pierre and going over his review, Pierre was handed his performance review in the men’s bathroom by the CEO. “Let me know if you have any questions,” was all that was said to Pierre. Inside the report, Pierre was greeted with:

  • No acknowledgement of his accomplishments – there were no significant praises or congratulatory remarks even though he was the only person in the company to hit the numbers he hit
  • Unrealistic goals – Pierre was rewarded by having his goals tripled for the following year, setting impossible goals to achieve, completely de-motivating Pierre
  • No raise – To add insult to injury, Pierre did not receive any raise for his stellar efforts

In the end, Pierre saw his boss, the CEO, as not really caring about him or his growth. His boss simply wanted to squeeze him like a lemon, get as much as he could out of him and when there was nothing left but a mushy rind, toss him in the trash.

What Can You Do?

If you are the manager, here are two important takeaways for you:

Don’t make it personal – personality conflicts have no place in performance reviews. If you can’t back up a statement with facts, consider not including it at all. And if you really don’t like the person that you have to review, consider having someone else conduct the review. Emotion is louder than performance feedback. If others think you don’t like him or her, that’s all they’ll hear.

Make it personal – Establish your positive intentions for your direct reports up front. If they believe you care about them and want to see them grow and improve, they’ll be amazingly open to even the toughest feedback. But if they don’t think you care, don’t expect them to care about what you have to say.

And if you are on the receiving end of a personal attack from your boss in your performance review, don’t be afraid to end the review and contact Human Resources. When things get personal, it is not only difficult to hear real feedback, it can make work a hostile place to be day in and day out. When it gets to that point, get your bags packed and start looking for an exit strategy.


Finding the right balance of personal involvement in performance reviews is what makes a great manager. Find that balance and you will be adored by your direct reports. Tipping too far either way, and you run the risk of the performance review conversation doing more harm than good. And one final point, avoid delivering performance reviews in the bathroom. That’s just plain wrong on so many levels…