by Mary Cruse
Date Published - Last Updated February 25, 2016

Our teams represent a broad spectrum of individuals: from superstars and solid performers, the mainstays of our groups, to those who do (or don’t do) just enough to get by. Likewise, there are as many leadership styles as there are managers: hands on, hands off, situational, fully delegated, etc. However, regardless of leadership style, what doesn’t seem to vary too much is the stress of performance reviews. No matter who you are, how you do business, or what kind of team you have, the idea of having to sit down and write those annual reviews (let alone have one!) triggers a tidal wave of thoughts and worries.

And it’s true for both employees and supervisors. Why? Because everyone wants to know what everyone else is thinking! Is it going to be positive? Is it going to be negative? Either way, it’s scary!

The Employee’s Perspective

This is a position we’re all in at some point, no matter our role, and any or all of these questions run through our heads: 

  • What does my boss really think of my performance? 
  • Does he think I’m meeting my objectives as well as I think I’m meeting them? 
  • Does she remember all of those special projects I worked on? 
  • Will I qualify for a raise?

Then we reflect on the different conversations we’ve had with our bosses. There were those official conversations when he gave you formal feedback, but there was also that off-hand comment she made while you were walking to the big staff meeting. Have we kept our own records of compliments, kudos and accomplishments, so we can reference them in our reviews?

The Manager’s Perspective

For those who not only receive reviews but also have to write them, there’s an additional layer (or two…or more) of anxiety. 

  • How do I give positive feedback and still offer constructive criticism? 
  • Do my “superstars” know how great they are? (Then why does Suzie always seem so surprised?) 
  • Why are my poor performers just as surprised about their reviews? (I know I’ve talked to Lyle more than once. Now, where are those notes?) 
  • Do I have notes on all of the things my team accomplished this year? Do I even remember everything I did this year? 
  • Why is writing these reviews so hard? And why does it take so long?

Reflecting back on the conversations we’ve had with our teams, individually and collectively, we can think of all the times we thought we made it clear what we expected, what they were doing right/wrong, what the difference was, and what it was going to take to get to the finish line. Don’t they remember? Why do some team members seem to get it but others don’t?

All of this causes such stress for us and for our teams, and as a result, for the work environment as a whole. Is there a better way? Yes! And it starts with a SIMPLE SMILE.

SIMPLE SMILEs: Eliminate Stress at Performance Review Time

I developed my SIMPLE SMILEs approach because I was tired of painful performance review sessions. With this approach, you apply the same technique to both individual and team performance management, one that communicates, recognizes, develops, and builds performance expectations throughout the year. Then when it comes time for that formal review session, it’s just another day, another meeting, another communication. Everyone is all SMILEs!

Leadership begins with you, my friend! Every person on your team should already want to perform at the top of their game, and their game is defined by what the company, their department, and you, their leader, expect of them. Tell them what you expect of them and you’ll find they’ll rise to that challenge; with rare exceptions, your team members want to meet your expectations.

So, performance management begins when you first set expectations. Here are some ideas on how to communicate regularly, document those discussions so everyone knows where they stand, and use that information to easily prepare performance reviews that are complete and consistent at the end of the year.

Make It SIMPLE for Each Person

Schedule a regular meeting with each of your team members. This creates an open, communicative environment for discussion, feedback, and brainstorming that can be invaluable to both of you. How so? By making the meeting SIMPLE! 

  • Scheduled: Schedule a time to meet and avoid changing the time. The more consistent this meeting is, the more important it will be to both of you. That, in and of itself, sends a critical message: Your time together is important. If you care, they care—don’t skip a meeting!
  • Informative: Come to the meeting fully prepared. Bring detailed information about your employee’s goals and the progress made toward those goals. As the leader, you should have metric data and you should be able to compare that to department performance; you should also have fully reviewed last month’s performance and compiled a list of examples of progress made or issues experienced since your last discussion.
  • Mutual: Create an opportunity for this to be a mutual feedback session. Take this opportunity to ask your team members for feedback on how you're doing, or if they have any ideas for improvements to how you do things or how the department’s processes work. If you’ve never done this before, it may come as a bit of a surprise to your team; you may not get much, if anything, at first, but keep asking. Let them know you’re sincerely interested in their feedback. After all, in a way, they’re your customers; make sure they know that you’re looking for ways to support them in a way that improves employee satisfaction. Once you get something, look for a way to implement a response. This shows them that you’re listening and interested. This is how you earn their trust and willingness to support your goals!
  • Positive Feedback: Everyone wants to hear the good stuff, so tell them what they’re doing right (and be specific!). Talk about specific situations and the difference they made. HR and other business partners want to know about results, not feelings. So, now is the time to start giving measurable, specific results in the form of positive feedback. Document any positive feedback and compliments on your 1-on-1 Summary report.
  • Learning Opportunities: This is where you talk about the learning opportunities, improvement opportunities, etc. These are the things where there is room for “doing it better.” Not only do you want to talk about what needs to get better, you also want to talk about how to make it better. List the steps to be taken (be very specific), the time frame for completion, and who is responsible for making sure those steps get done. You may need to arrange for additional training; sometimes, however, it’s up to the employee to work on something independently, like taking an online course or working on their time management skills. Let them set the time frame first. If it doesn’t work, you can counsel accordingly.
  • Empowerment: This is the most important part of the meeting (a “meeting of the minds,” if you will). This is when the employee and the leader look at where the individual is headed, and where they agree that, while the leader will do everything he or she can to support the employee, it is the individual’s responsibility to meet the leader’s expectations. The employee needs to feel empowered (trained, supported, and capable) to meet those goals and expectations. With that empowerment comes a sense of responsibility and accountability. This conversation might go a little something like this:

John: “Susie, we’ve talked about the progress you’ve made this month toward your Quality Score. We’ve planned for you to work with the Frank on some additional techniques, and I’ll arrange for that training time next Tuesday afternoon. Your responsibility is to take careful notes on those techniques and apply them this month. How do you feel about meeting the goal of increasing your score by at least five points over the next month?”

Susie: “Yes, I believe that plan will make me successful in meeting that goal.”

John: “Great! I’m going to add these notes to our 1-on-1 Summary. I’m looking forward to seeing you meet or even beat that goal by next month! Thanks, Susie!”

Make sure you give employees a chance to include their own comments on the 1-on-1 Summary report. Give them one day to turn in comments for the summary; anything they want to add after that can be submitted as a memo and attached later. Comments affixed, now you and your employee need to sign off on the summary as documented proof of your commitment to the plan. Keep a copy of this and all past and future summaries in the employee’s record. Use them to track performance and praise improvements or clarify misunderstandings.

You should now have regular, open communication with each member of your team. These meetings should be well documented, including any special projects, accomplishments, or contributions. When it comes time to write performance reviews at the end of the year, you should have all the information you need to put together a well-written, fair performance review that should come as no surprise to any of your team members, since it comes directly from the communication you’ve had each month.

Make Your Team SMILE

Team performance is just as important as individual performance. If your team members are focused only on themselves, you will never have a team. Therefore, for the best performance results, you must set both individual and team expectations, and you must get your team members to look beyond their own performance. How? By making your team SMILE.

  • Squad: By definition, a squad is a unit that is part of a larger task force or group. If you look at your team as a smaller part of the larger organization, their performance contributes to the larger goal. That is the foundation of the SMILE approach. Make sure your squad understands what they need to be doing and how their contributions affect the greater goal.
  • Metrics: A great way to measure the success of the squad is through metrics. Which metrics can best detect whether or not the squad is meeting its performance goals? Get the squad involved in identifying those metrics, selecting someone to put the reports together, figuring out how to report the data, etc.
  • Illustrated: Once your squad has selected its metrics and decided how to report them, illustrate those goals and post them somewhere in your squad room. Is there an artist on your team? Maybe a graphic designer? This is a great project that combines their artistic interests with the squad’s performance efforts. But make sure these charts are easy to understand, so that any visitors can get a quick read on your team’s performance.
  • Links: Your squad’s goals must be linked to the goals of the larger task force—the corporation. You can even make that part of your charts: how is the corporation doing and how is the squad doing?
  • Engaging: Regularly review where the squad stands in relation to its goals, both in your one-on-one meetings and in your regular staff meetings. (You do have regular staff meetings, right?) Staff meetings are just as critical as one-on-one meetings. The team needs regular status updates on current projects and plans for the future. These meetings keep the squad engaged and encouraged; this is where they take off for short- and long-term missions. But make sure you engage them informally, too, even if it’s just a cubicle fly-by. Encourage them to actively participate in selecting, tracking, and reporting metrics, and devising strategies for achieving the team’s goals. This will help keep them on track, and it’s the final step to bringing it all together.

Bringing It All Together

Take the time to meet individually and as a group every month, to discuss expectations and current performance levels. Give positive feedback and encourage individual and team development. Watch how your relationships and your work environment change for the better. As customers interact with your staff, they will sense this “can-do” attitude, and they’ll let you know how impressed they are. This is what makes companies successful.

Ultimately, the key to trouble-free performance management is regular communication. Take the SIMPLE SMILE approach and you’ll have engaged, empowered, and energized employees who know what’s expected of them and rise to the challenge!


Passionate about customer service, Mary Cruse has more than twenty-five years of experience leading teams at Fortune 500 companies in the airline, healthcare, and health club industries. She is currently the director of IT Customer Services at First American Title, where she is responsible for leading service desk, desktop support, executive support, and request fulfillment teams that serve employees around the world. She holds a number of industry certifications and she speaks regularly at industry conferences and seminars.

Tag(s): coaching, human resources, leadership, people, workforce enablement


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