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2020 in review: Handling annual conversations with employees

Leaders still need to have annual performance and development conversations with employees. But they'll need to be different, because nothing in 2020 has been normal.

6 min read


2020 in review: Handling annual conversations with employees

Unsplash image/SmartBrief illustration

2020 is clearly the year that no one planned for. The ink was barely dry on annual goals, objectives and expectations when many organizations were upended by COVD-19.

Many leaders already don’t relish the year-end tradition of evaluating performance and development, and they are understandably concerned about how to structure these conversations under current circumstances — or even whether such conversations should be conducted.

But here’s the truth. Your employees need this conversation more this year than ever before. Stress. Anxiety. Displacement. Isolation. Disappointments. And the list goes on. People need to connect. They need space and time to be carved out to reflect deeply upon and make sense of the past year. They need to feel valued for what they were able to accomplish – even if it wasn’t all that was expected.

So, this year’s reviews may be the most important such meetings a leader will conduct. And when addressed skillfully, they can be a dynamic opportunity to build pride, insights, relationships, trust and motivation for the coming year. But not if they default to last year’s script or road map.

To be effective, the 2020 version of this conversation will require additional care and nuance. Consider these small but significant adjustments.

Honor the whole person

The lines between work and home have never been blurrier for most people. When COVID-19 sent a huge portion of the workforce into work-from-home mode, we expanded our understanding of those with whom we work. So, the scene is already set to expand the envelope and bring that whole and complete human being into the review.

This is the year to tap our humanity and use this time to not just explore performance and development, but to also consider the broader person. Depending upon the relationship that’s been established, this is a time to go deeper than before with questions like:

  • How are you doing — really?
  • How’s working from home working for you?
  • How are you feeling about returning to the workplace?
  • To what extent are you able to find balance?
  • What support do you need?

Using this review time to connect, not just on a business level but also on a deeply personal level, offers a rare opportunity to deepen trust, elevate the relationship and offer the kind of attention and understanding that many employees crave right now.

Wallow in the wins

This is the year to shine the brightest light possible upon successes, achievements and positive outcomes. Employees who face endless challenges and changes day after day need to pause and celebrate, and the year-end review is an ideal time to do this.

While an accounting of “what went well” is a standard feature of the review landscape, this year, it needs to be amplified. Leaders can do this by:

  • Inviting employees to put together their list of wins in advance — and to do it creatively. Make it a portfolio review. Or a PowerPoint deck. Or a “top 20” list. The key is to offer a different frame that inspires greater engagement with the task.
  • Gathering positive comments and stories from colleagues, employees, customers and other stakeholders. A list of quotes or a word cloud that featuring positive themes will demonstrate your additional effort and can offer the boost and balance many people need this year.
  • Remembering that effort and partial wins deserve recognition, too. It’s easy to focus only on those goals or objectives that hit the 100% completion mark. But this year, 90% or even 50% might be worth celebrating, as well. Reinforcing the effort toward those partial results may be exactly what’s required to sustain it the rest of the way.

Mine the misses

For many organizations and individuals, 2020 shifted the trajectory in unexpected directions. Much of the Q1 goal setting became immediately irrelevant before the close of the quarter. Revenue – and nearly every other measure of performance – has likely fallen short of expectations. Leaders and employees need to have a candid conversation about this. How the conversation is handled can drive further disappointment or greater dedication and development.

This year, leaders may want to begin this part of the conversation differently, perhaps by turning the spotlight toward the organization and themselves. To begin with an honest appraisal of how the business responded, fell short and/or recovered is an unusual line of discussion, but these are unusual times.

Demonstrating responsibility and accountability at the organizational and leadership levels sets the tone for greater employee candor and vulnerability. Inviting the employee to review the organization offers a rich opportunity for insight, feedback and improvement that leaders rarely hear, as well.

A similarly open approach must also extend to the discussion of the employee’s performance or development shortfalls. Compassion must accompany candor, along with an eye toward learning and future action. The most powerful and productive question a leader can use to make this happen is “What did you learn from that?” This becomes a springboard for exploring alternatives and planning for a more productive future. In this way, missed expectations are mined for the rich insights they provide.

One of the things we’ve learned during this extraordinary year is that sometimes small things can be a big deal. And when leaders are willing to make these small adjustments to the annual performance and development reviews, they can transform the traditional process into an experience that resonates and fills the deep need that many employees have. And that is definitely a big deal.


Looking for additional ideas and resources to ensure effective year-end employee performance and development reviews? Download the  complimentary e-toolkit “Hot Mess? Dumpster Fire? Train Wreck? You Still Have to Conduct Year-End Reviews.” In it, you’ll find a novel way to get employees to prepare, a roadmap to a productive conversation, the must-ask questions, pitfalls, tips for handling it remotely, and even strategies for addressing the dreaded money question.

Julie Winkle Giulioni works with organizations worldwide to improve performance through leadership and learning.  Named one of Inc. Magazine’s top 100 leadership speakers, Giulioni is the co-author of the Amazon and Washington Post bestseller “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want,” You can learn more about her speaking, training and blog at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.

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