The end of the year typically spurs reflection, not only on a personal level, but a professional one. Part of that reflective pause before the final push to the end of the year includes the annual performance review. It’s not exactly the most festive or fun activity, but that doesn’t mean it has to be stressful.

Here’s how to make performance reviews less painful and more effective for everyone involved.

Personnel management is more than the annual assessment

In many organizations, the end of the year represents the start of the official personnel evaluation process, an activity that may be characterized by all manner of paperwork, formal conversations, ratings, and difficult discussions. The problem with many leaders is that they regard this activity as the cornerstone of the employee evaluation loop, and feel safe ignoring any feedback outside the official process.

Over-reliance on an annual review process is a recipe for frustration for all parties. Imagine an auto race where the finish line was arbitrarily moved every lap, without informing the spectators or drivers. Fans and participants would be frustrated and angry to have participated in an entire race, only to find out that they’d missed the mark without a reliable way to periodically check their performance.

Effective assessments can do a great job of forcing employees and managers to consider goals, development objectives, and the like. However, they’re a horrible means of providing a quick benchmark against those targets.

SEE: Accomplishment tracker (Tech Pro Research)

The 15-minute checkpoint

Keeping all parties aware of where they stand outside of the annual assessment process need not be another onerous administrative burden. Plus, it will aid you in keeping track of what your staff are working on, when they need development help, or when they are ready for a more challenging role.

Schedule 15 minutes with your direct reports monthly or quarterly. During these sessions, start the conversation with simple questions, including:

  • What have you been working on since we last spoke?
  • What have you enjoyed about this work? What have you found challenging?
  • What new skills are you developing? What skills do you wish to acquire?
  • What kind of work would you like to be doing at the end of the year?

Merely asking about what they’ve enjoyed and what they’ve found challenging can tell you volumes about whether that person is in too easy or too difficult a role, and also give you a sense of what interests them and where they might be most effectively deployed.

You’ll likely get good feedback on how their projects are progressing, and potentially identify early warning signs of struggling initiatives, or initiatives that you’ve overstaffed and can be trimmed without unnecessary risk. You’ll also get a sense of how an employee is performing against his objectives, which includes figuring out those objectives have changed, or should be changed.

Finally, spend a couple of minutes during this conversation to informally evaluate the employee, and share any feedback you’ve received about their performance. If the feedback is largely positive, the mere act of a heartfelt “Thanks for your hard work” can do more than a multi-page annual assessment. If you have negative feedback to share, delivering it in-person while there’s still time to act is far more efficient than waiting months for the annual assessment, when it’s too late for the employee to “save himself” for that year. Ask the employee how he or she will modify their performance to address the areas you’ve identified, and hold them accountable during future checkpoints to see how they’ve progressed in correcting the substandard behavior.

SEE: Tips for getting the most from your performance reviews (free TechRepublic PDF)

60 minutes toward reduced stress

Assuming you hold these meetings quarterly, a mere additional hour each year can save weeks of stress during the annual assessment period. Employees should have a good understanding of how their performance has stacked up against expectations, and you should understand their strengths, weaknesses, and career development objectives. Rather than the one chance to convey feedback, the assessment should turn into a summation of that year’s achievements that all parties see as a documentation of a previously-established understanding, rather than an unexpected and baseless critique.

Strongly consider investing the modicum of time to perform quarterly checkpoints; it will make for higher-performing staff, and a dramatically less painful annual assessment process.