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Avoiding death by numbers: How to provide modern feedback to employees

By 30/11/2016June 22nd, 2021Employee Management

Businesses are driven by numbers. Sales, marketing and strategy all rely on statistics that provide an unambiguous view of performance. What’s going well? Is there danger on the horizon? Which products need further development?

Numbers are key drivers of success

Unfortunately, they can also be soul destroying. This is particularly the case in HR, where the annual employee review often falls into the trap of becoming a paint by numbers exercise.

Picture the scene (most of us, at some stage, have experienced this): a day or so before your review, you’re handed a piece of paper containing a bunch of headings. Next to each heading is an empty box into which you’re asked to place a score in an effort to mark yourself out of ten for a number of key performance indicators (KPIs). That alone is depressing enough – until you reach the meeting itself.

You see, your boss has done the same; they’ve also marked you out of ten on each of the KPIs and now, you’ve got to compare scores.

What ensues is a rather uncomfortable game of HR top trumps. “I gave myself an eight,” you say. “Ah,” says the boss. “I’m afraid I gave you a four.”

Gauging employee performance via this method doesn’t work for anyone. The employee will feel reduced to a statistic within a much larger machine, the boss will be left with the unenviable task of explaining why the scores differ so wildly and, as a result, the business will gradually build a staff base that has zero emotional connection to the company.

It’s time to change annual reviews, which is why we’ve decided to put together the ultimate guide for providing modern feedback to employees. Let’s put an end to death by numbers!

Buy-in to the process

This may sound obvious, but if you’re a manager or HR professional, you need to buy-in to the personal development review (PDR) process. If you don’t believe in it, why should the employee?

Employee reviews should never be seen as wastes of time. If they are, there’s something wrong, and the most likely culprit is the aforementioned death-by-numbers syndrome. If you’re being asked to conduct PDRs in the manner described above, you need to be the harbinger of change. Speak to those in charge of the process, or, if that’s you, read on!

Get rid of the numbers

Thankfully, this bit is rather straightforward. Simply open the template employee review document, highlight the column in which scores or percentages are expected, and hit ‘delete’.

In its place, pop a nice big comment field (we’ll explore KPI setting in a future blog, and instead assume you’re happy with the areas on which you’re assessing employees – so keep those as they are). This is all you need to give the employee.

For your (or the manager’s) benefit, create another sheet that lists the key areas of performance (communication, team orientation, work rate, time keeping, etc) and add columns for ‘excellent’, ‘good’, ‘acceptable’, ‘fair’ and ‘poor’. This is for you to complete before the PDR – don’t ask the team member to do so.

Come to the meeting, you’ll have a solid idea of how you feel the employee is performing, but – and more importantly – they can come armed with an honest appraisal of their own performance, against their KPIs. No top trumps – just a healthy, fair, two-way discussion

Increase the frequency, reduce the duration

Who says a PDR can only take place once a year? in fact, in doing so, you’re probably not getting the most out of the process. The more infrequently something like this occurs, the less it is relished; it’s seen as more of an unusual inconvenience than something of benefit.

Try holding your PDRs quarterly, but promise to yourself that you’ll reduce how long they last. A focussed half-hour chat will likely draw out more engagement from the employee and result in positive development plans than a two hour-long statistics-filled session held every twelve months.

Remove the element of surprise

There shouldn’t be any surprises come PDR time. If an employee needs to be pulled up on a serious misdemeanor, that should take place as soon as possible after the incident. Never leave the big stuff until the PDR.

The importance of silence

Even if you follow the tips above and build a PDR process that is engaging and entirely devoid of score-setting, you’ll still encounter people who simply won’t open up.

If an employee is only providing one-word answers, try the silence trick; avoid speaking immediately after they’ve delivered their short reply. Leave a long, noticeable gap. It may feel uncomfortable, but there’s a good chance the employee will feel compelled to dive in and fill the void.

Listen, listen, listen

There is all manner of theories relating to how much airtime both the employee and boss should be given during a PDR. Some say the 80/20 rule applies (in favour of giving more stage time to the employee), but, in reality, you simply have to go with your gut instinct.

Let the employee talk as much as possible, and listen intently. As noted above, silence is your best companion during a PDR, and the employees who want to talk will greatly appreciate being given the opportunity to do so.

Cap it off with a brilliant report

A great PDR can be undermined by a lackluster report. This last stage of the process is crucial and, in times of old, the scorecard method would simply have resulted in a document containing confirmed, final scores along with a brief comment from the boss.

Who’s going to read that? More importantly, who’s going to bother acting on the information contained within?

Set aside adequate time to write up your PDR reports and put your heart into them. You’ll have taken adequate notes during the meeting (you did, didn’t you?), and will, therefore, be able to provide an accurate recount of what was discussed and planned. Finish it up with an honest appraisal of the employee’s overall performance, and write to them as you would an old friend. They’ll appreciate it, and – more importantly – react in a positive fashion.


Employee feedback sessions are still a vital part of business, but if handled incorrectly, can result in nothing more than disenchanted staff and an HR department that spends more time dealing with issues than rewarding success.

Modern feedback is about leading and providing an invaluable guiding light for employee development. Follow the tips in our blog to revolutionise your PDR process.

Natural HR

About Natural HR

Natural HR is a cloud-based HR software company for growing businesses with 100+ employees. Since launching in 2010, we’ve been building a comprehensive suite of HR functionality that equips the small to medium-sized enterprise with everything needed to build an effective and efficient HR operation.