Posted by: Professionals In Human Resources Association (PIHRA) | July 6, 2011

HR Concepts: Motivating Supervisors to Write Performance Reviews

By Mike Deblieux, SPHR-CA

There is a simple maxim that states, “People do what they are rewarded for doing.” The statement is hardly ever more true than when a supervisor has to choose between writing a performance review and doing something else. All too often, the rewards for doing “something else” are greater. Weeks later, an HR professional issues reminder after reminder to motivate the supervisor to finally write the review.

The rewards for writing a performance review are few. Seldom does a manager offer a compliment to a supervisor who writes an effective review and delivers it on time. At best, the conversation goes like this:

Manager: Did you get your reviews done?

Supervisor: Yes. I turned them all into HR this morning.

Manager: That’s good.

There are few in that brief conversation.

In most organizations, HR pays far more attention to supervisors who write poor reviews and deliver them long after the due date than to those who do what they are supposed to do. HR and the supervisor’s manager need to team up to create an emphasis on positive reinforcement. HR, for example, can evaluate the quality and timeliness of a supervisor’s reviews and provide feedback to the supervisor’s manager. HR’s feedback provides the manager with specific points to reinforce the supervisor’s efforts. The manager’s comments go from “I see you got your reviews done” to “I am pleased with the quality of the performance reviews you wrote for your team because…”

Long before establishing a due date, an HR professional designs a performance review system. An effective system helps a supervisor communicate about the employee’s job, job performance, and future expectations. In other words, it helps a supervisor supervise by providing a framework for a job-related discussion. Unfortunately, many systems fall short of supporting the efforts of a supervisor to provide effective feedback. When the supervisor tries to use the system, he or she finds it confounding, confusing, and contrary to good management practice.

A supervisor is much more motivated to invest time writing a review when the system provides a laser focus on key job duties, critical corporate competencies, and future job performance. Those are the things a supervisor thinks about on a daily basis. They are the things that a supervisor talks to an employee about on a regular basis. Most importantly, they are the things a supervisor is comfortable summarizing on a well-designed review form. In short, when the system makes sense to a supervisor, he or she is much more likely to use it.

Some of the procrastination a supervisor experiences at the first sign of a performance review relates to the rating system designed by HR. The issue is not whether there should be three, four, or five ratings. That is an old debate among HR professionals. It is about how the ratings relate to merit increases, how they are used by other supervisors, and how they are received by employees. When a supervisor is uncomfortable with these issues, he or she is much less motivated to invest time writing a review.

HR plays a key role in removing this obstacle. HR defines the ratings. The definitions must be clear. They must relate to the key work assignments of the employee and the core competencies of the organization. Most importantly, they must clearly distinguish between levels. They must provide clarity, not confusion, to the supervisor’s decision to assign a performance level to an employee. In other words, the line between each rating must be clear, not ambiguous.

Even if the ratings are clear, they must be used consistently between supervisors. This consistency can only be accomplished through training, practice, and reinforcement. The most effective step an HR professional can take to create consistency is to bring a group of supervisors together to debate the meaning of each rating level. The discussion starts with small groups listing the characteristics of a “Satisfactory” employee for a specific job classification. Once the list is created, the group is then assigned to list the additional characteristics for a “More than Satisfactory” employee in the same classification. The HR professional moderates the discussion until the group reaches a consensus. It is not a one hour discussion. It is one that more organizations need to have. When a supervisor is confident that colleagues use the system as it is intended to be used, they are more confident and more likely to carry out their responsibility to provide feedback.

If everything else is in place, many supervisors still struggle with the idea of writing employee feedback. The words do not come easily. The message takes time to form. Worse, a huge cloud of uncertainty over how the employee will receive the feedback hovers overhead. There is good reason for the uncertainty. First, supervisors rarely become supervisors because they were unproductive employees. Second, most supervisors have had more than one bad experience giving feedback. And third, training to understand the impact of feedback is far more rare than it should be.

Listening is one step to overcoming this dilemma. Supervisors make many assumptions about what employees need and want in the way of employee feedback. When a supervisor takes time to learn about the performance expectations of an employee, he or she can erase much of the trepidation they face in the review process. HR can help by providing some structure for such a discussion. Some sample questions for the discussion include:

  • Tell me about a manager you worked for who helped you to grow in your profession. What did he or she do to help you grow?
  • On a scale of one to five, with one being not nearly enough and five being everything you need, how would you rate the feedback that I give you on your projects? (If less than five) What could I do to make it a five? (If five) What is it about the feedback that I provide that is helpful to you?
  • What can I do to help you do your job more effectively?

Taking time to listen to an employee’s perspective on feedback accomplishes two important things for a supervisor. First, it sends a message to the employee that the supervisor has a sincere interest in a collaborative process. Second, it provides invaluable insights for the supervisor into the needs and expectations of an employee. It is not a cure all, but it is a start – a start toward reducing the anxiety a supervisor faces when he or she faces the blank lines of a performance review form.


HR professionals face an on-going challenge of motivating supervisors to write performance reviews on time. There is no magic formula for achieving success. There is, however, a well kept secret – supervisors, like other people, do what they are rewarded for doing. The more that HR can create intrinsic and extrinsic rewards for a supervisor, the more likely the supervisor is to write effective reviews on a timely basis.

Mike Deblieux, SPHR-CA, designs and presents on-site seminars and workshops for front-line workplace leaders. He provides coaching support for supervisors and supports HR professionals through special projects to help their organizations achieve strategic goals. Mike writes HR Concepts to help HR professionals better understand and use fundamental HR principles. Share your feedback on this article with Mike at


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