Structured check-ins: accelerate people’s growth and prevent performance review surprises

Experience shows that most people would love more, not less, feedback from their manager. It makes sense: feedback can be an incredibly helpful input in deciding how to change one’s behavior to adjust to a given environment, or change environments altogether. Just imagine how much faster your reports would grow if you constantly gave them pointers on what they’re doing well and what you’d like them to change! Yet satisfaction with “getting actionable feedback” tends to be low in employee surveys, the primary reason being managers not knowing how to give good-quality feedback.

Not only does lack of good-quality feedback keep your reports from growing faster, but it also necessarily leads to surprises at performance review time. “Bad” surprises are obviously unpleasant (“If I knew you thought I was screwing up, I would’ve addressed it!”), and there’s really no “good” surprises (“If I knew I was doing this thing extremely well, I would’ve doubled down on the behavior / asked for a promotion”). Add to it the fact that official performance reviews happen at best every six months, and at worst never. By the time the dreaded eight-week-long dance rolls around, if you’re like most people, you remember what your reports have accomplished and how they’ve accomplished it in maybe the last two weeks, so you write down some bullets on how this person is a great team player and hope for the best.

But there’s a better way: structured periodic two-way feedback check-ins. I’ve used this particular approach with screaming success with my teams. It’s created great clarity for both my reports and me into 1) my performance as their manager, 2) their performance in role, 3) their readiness for promotion, and 4) their level of satisfaction at work. Ultimately, it focused my reports’ development efforts, accelerated their growth, and largely prevented the dreaded surprises at performance review time.

Prerequisites

To get the most out of this approach, you’ll need the following inputs:

  • Expectations of you as a manager (a.k.a. manager career ladder) so your reports can tie their feedback to something tangible) – nice to have
  • The report’s goals that you’ve agreed to at the beginning of the period (e.g., quarterly OKRs / project goals) – required
  • Expectations of the report’s role (a.k.a. career ladder) – required
  • A list of factors for satisfaction at work created by your report – required
  • A one-hour meeting scheduled on the calendar at six-week intervals to walk through the above – required. With new teammates and/or in extremely fast-paced teams, shorten this cadence to monthly. In more established pairs and teams, twice a quarter produces the best balance of results/behavior recall and new information to cover. To prevent meeting bloat, cancel your regular weekly 1:1 with that person during check-in week.

How to do the check-in

Explain this structured agenda to your report ahead of time and add it as notes to the meeting invite:

  1. Upward feedback – 10 min. Please come prepared with any feedback/thoughts off the top of your head and structured feedback based on the manager’s role expectations (attach the expectations doc).
  2. OKRs/goals review – 20 min. Please prepare a brief summary of the goals you’ve signed up for and how you think you’re doing on each one.
  3. Competencies review – 20 min. Please grade your competencies for the last 6 weeks (if the check-in is mid-quarter) or 12 weeks (if the check-in is at quarter end).
  4. Satisfaction at work review – 10 min. Please bring your list of factors of satisfaction at work and your current rating of each one.

Upward feedback

This is your chance to receive feedback from your reports. It’s deliberately first on the agenda because it may be very awkward for a report to deliver feedback to their manager after the manager has given them feedback. Expect to really ask for this and require that people give you negative feedback (not just positive feedback). Be prepared to sit in uncomfortable silence. If absolutely needed, prompt folks with things like “So what should I start/continue/stop doing?” Remember that how you receive feedback on every occasion will determine how willing your reports will be to keep giving you feedback. For best results, ahead of every one of these sessions get a refresher on the best practices of receiving feedback. Their gist is to really listen, ask for clarification if needed, paraphrase to make sure you understood what your report meant, write things down and not react emotionally in the moment. Enter this conversation in a curious state of mind. You can always talk about what parts of the feedback you accept and what you’ll do about them in the next meeting.

For the next two sections – OKRs/goals review and Competencies review, both the report and you should grade things ahead of time. The point of these discussions is for you to compare notes and target areas of discrepancy. This not only gets you on the same page about the recent results and behaviors but also calibrates your mutual understanding of the goals and competencies. My experience is that after three or four check-ins, the manager and the report become highly calibrated, leading to more and more harmonious meetings. However, harmony isn’t the goal here; it’s a consequence of calibration. It’s productive to note and talk through miscalibration in these check-ins while examples are still fresh in everyone’s minds and course can be corrected, as opposed to at the yearly performance review which is official, final and scary.

OKRs/goals review

Ask your report to summarize what they’ve signed up for and how they think it’s going in terms of business results. This will naturally bleed into behaviors, which is OK. For example, your report may say something like “I set out to improve conversion rates of metric X from A to B (the goal). It’s the middle of the quarter, and the metric has gone in the opposite direction (the business result). I think there’s two reasons for it: we didn’t have a good understanding of what drives the metric when we set the goal (the new information we now have), and I didn’t do a great job convincing team Y that they should prioritize work on this metric (the behaviors).”

At this point, you can chime in with your understanding of these points and any additions that you may have to facts, and praise and areas of improvement for the report.

Rinse and repeat with every OKR.

Competencies review

Ask your report to grade themselves on the competencies for their role/level. Use the same grading scale your company uses in official performance reviews. Come prepared with the same grading from your side. Get the report to share their grades / reasoning, then share yours as you work through the list. Talk through differences of opinion, check for understanding. When one person admits that the other person’s perception is closer to being correct, that person should adjust the grade in their sheet.

When doing the homework on competency grading, it’s important to grade top-down. This means you first want to record the overall grade you’d give this person right now, then use the detailed rubric to check your feeling. If you go bottom-up, it’s easy to talk yourself into a grade different from the one you know is right. It’s also possible your report has done something extremely well or extremely poorly that’s not on the competency list (by its nature, it’s not an exhaustive list of all possibilities in the world) – you want to take these things into account.

Notice that in both OKR and competency review, your report shares their observations first. It’s a fantastic way to structure things! First, it requires the report to self-reflect. Second, it puts the report in a position of owning their successes, failures and ultimately their development – they are literally doing most of the storytelling in their own words. Third, it lifts the responsibility of delivering negative feedback from you, the manager. In most cases, the report will honestly note areas that aren’t going so well and you can just confirm them and add your perspective, which necessarily minimizes defensiveness on the receiving end and maximizes the chances of appropriate change in behavior required to move forward.

Satisfaction at work review

Here’s a depressing thought: it’s possible for someone to be crushing their OKRs and sailing through competency development at double speed and at the same time be miserable at work. Maybe they want to be in a different role, maybe they don’t feel they are growing fast enough, maybe they hate their manager (it sucks being you in this case!). If you don’t check in on how satisfied your reports are with their job, you may found out the hard way – when they unexpectedly ask to switch teams, rage-quit or start underperforming.

Ask your report to list factors most important to their satisfaction at work. Do not provide them with the list – the whole point is for them to create the list! I’ve been consistently surprised by how different people’s approaches to this have been: some people value freedom of operation as their first factor, and some commute length. If you have high psychological safety in your team, it may be a good idea for people to (anonymously?) share their lists – my teams have found this a worthwhile exercise.

In each check-in, ask the report to pre-grade the list on whatever scale they like and walk you through the logic/commentary. Have them keep a record of these grades – it’s very helpful to see how the factors evolve over time and how things that were on fire a few check-ins ago can quickly lose their potency.

…And you’re done! Make sure to repeat these sessions and never move them more than a week in either direction to preserve a meaningful cadence. With practice, prepping for them will become a lot more efficient: it takes me 20-30 minutes to prep for one of these.

For sample materials discussed in one check-in, see below.

These check-ins have helped me feel a little more competent as a manager. I know from periodic upward feedback that I got during these check-ins 😜, as well as feedback about me that went from my direct reports to my manager, that my teams really appreciated “the culture of two-way feedback” we had in the team.


OKRs/goals review

Here’s an abbreviated and anonymized example of self-grading of work and personal OKRs by someone on my teams:

Competencies review

I’ve added grades from both the report and the manager into the same sheet for brevity. In reality, it’s awkward to be preparing this type of content in the same spreadsheet in real time – you don’t want the other person breathlessly watching you change a grade from 4 to 3 and then to 2. The manager will have their own document, the report their own; they will compare them side by side in the meeting.

Factors of satisfaction review

Here are a few examples from real people:


I’d love to hear about your learnings in applying this and other methods – please comment below!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Great article Olga!

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