Performance reviews are one of the ugly realities in a manager’s life. Employees dread them, but they seldom stop to consider that, as uncomfortable as the review process is from the receiving end, it can be even harder on the reviewing manager. Managers must go through not one but many reviews each year, and often they need to deliver criticisms that may or may not be well received.

As managers, there’s little we can do about performance reviews, as they provide a foundation for the growth and development (and, of course, promotion) of team members. However, there are steps you can take to make the process easier and more productive for both you and the employee. These practical steps can help you communicate more clearly and effectively with your employee so that you’ll both come away feeling inspired instead of drained.

Change the dynamics
Many times, the dynamics of the performance review process contribute to the mutual discomfort. Typically, you sit down with an employee in some neutral location—an empty conference room, for instance—and try to keep the process as mercifully short as you both can manage without shortchanging it. The employee is guarded, and the whole thing can be as awkward as an elementary school play.

The intimidation of the big, empty conference room really doesn’t do much to facilitate open dialogue. Is there some more comfortable setting on site, like the cafeteria? Is the lobby quiet enough for private conversation? Find a place that will be relaxing and neutral. And must you take notes? If jotting down the results of the conversation can wait until you return to your desk, then by all means put the notebook aside and just talk. You’re sure to get more candid, constructive conversation happening if you do everything possible to set your employee at ease.

However, there’s often little you can do to change the physical dynamics of the review process—the employee is still likely to regard a performance review about as highly as a visit to the dentist. But you can change the dynamics of the process by altering the way you approach it and how you say what you need to say to the employee.

Two important points are worth your consideration. First, think of what this process can offer you as a manager beyond your duty to company protocol. As you sit down with an individual, ask yourself, what would I really like to know about this employee that I don’t already know? Second, consider that the path between where you are with this employee and where you want to be isn’t a question of what you say, but how you say it.

In other words, as you undertake the performance review, say exactly what you usually say, but say it differently. I’ll offer some examples that show how merely changing the way you say something can change the dynamics of the review process for the better.

Not “you did a good job” but “you’re an asset to the team”
Typically, we praise an employee for a particular piece of work during the period under review, or for a skill or personal trait that has been of value to the team. Recent improvement in some area that needed work is generally also something a manager will note. Praise, when well deserved, is obviously important. But consider that most managers settle for focusing on a task or a skill when offering positive feedback. This is fine as far as it goes, but the task or skill is the fulcrum used to motivate the employee.

There’s a better way. Single out the same good work or skills you’d otherwise mention, but restructure your feedback so that it centers on the employee. “You’re a tremendous asset to the team” becomes the focus, and the specific praise becomes an example of the qualities you want to emphasize. The message to the employee is no longer that you value a certain piece of work or talent, but that they themselves are valued. You’re saying almost exactly the same thing, but saying it in a way that imparts a higher level of respect and appreciation.

Not “you need to work on this” but “what would you do over if you could?”
The flip side of positive feedback is constructive criticism, a much tougher matter to communicate. Employees often resist this, or suffer it with as much dignity as they can muster. It can’t be avoided, but you can offer it in a way that gives the employee a more graceful and fruitful role in the interaction. Instead of gently pointing out flaws, give the employee an opportunity for self-assessment. “What would you have done differently?” is a good lead-in to a discussion of a recent fumble or a poorly executed project task.

The truth is that most of your team members are pretty honest with themselves, and they’ll know where they need work. By offering them the opportunity to identify their weaknesses in a way that is more comfortable for them, you’re not only making a difficult discussion easier (and thus more constructive), but you’re also opening a door to trust for future conversations. You’re making it easier for the employee to admit to a shortcoming, and to come to you when they need something. If they don’t go for it, you can always just state the problem yourself, but you have nothing to lose and plenty to gain by opening this door first.

Not “this is what I’d like to see” but “where would you like to be?”
You’re probably already doing something like this. Goal setting has become an increasingly important part of the review process in the post-Tom Peters era of management. It’s important that you let growth happen where it wants to happen, rather than where it might be convenient for you. Too many times we’re guilty of scooting our people around like chess pieces to suit our own needs and goals. It’s often better for your employees and the company to let them develop in another direction. Part of your job is to help them find it.

All you need from this part of the conversation is a cue from your employee. Goal setting is something that needs only tentative agreement between manager and employee in moments like this. The truth is, real goals and objectives are made up of smaller, day-to-day victories that are hashed out in the trenches. That is, you’re not going to achieve anything earthshaking on the goal-setting front in an employee review. So whatever your agenda for the employee, you really lose nothing by letting them run with this one. More importantly, you may gain valuable (and often surprising) insights into possibilities for the employee that had not occurred to you.

Not “my door is always open” but “how can I help?”
Most managers like to dish out ”action items,” and in the course of any performance reviews some of these items will emerge. Consider the message you’ll send the employee if you, the manager, take on some action items of your own—and those items are in the service of the employee.

Any manager worthy of the title is going to project some level of openness to the team, and some indication of an investment in the success of its members. However, many managers settle for a passive effort on this point. Break the stereotype. Ask your team members what you can do to help them do their jobs. Perhaps you can facilitate training, or begin using them in a new area, or whatever they suggest. Whether or not a particular request is viable, your willingness to consider it—and your active pursuit of the opportunity to do so—will send a strong message that you are truly invested in their success.

Follow up the discussion
Follow up with an e-mail recalling the main points of discussion to ensure that the review put you both on the same page. This is, after all, a formal process that has downline effects. But don’t settle for canned questions and answers. If you need to, follow up your follow-up until you’re sure you’ve made your point. Leaving employees in doubt does them no favors, nor you.

Make the most of the performance review process
Performance is often a very difficult thing to measure, but until something better comes along, one-on-one reviews between manager and employee will remain with us. Put your employees ahead of the process in a way that unmistakably communicates your appreciation of who they are, and performance review time will leave you both satisfied.

It’s your turn

What do you think about these tips for improving performance reviews? What else would you like to see Scott Robinson cover on this topic? Post your comment below, or send an e-mail here.