Blog Performance

Here comes the fear: Performance review anxiety and how to handle it

Updated 17th February 2022

Just about everyone finds performance reviews stressful. So, if they're your primary method of giving employee feedback, they can actually be a huge source of anxiety. 

But that doesn't have to be the case. A feedback-centric workplace culture should focus on continuous performance management and frequent employee feedback. This can turn review meetings from something you dread into something you positively anticipate. 

So let's look at the relationship between anxiety and performance reviews, and how to untangle them.

Stress versus anxiety

First, it's important to establish the difference between stress and anxiety. We'll be bouncing between the two terms quite a lot in today's piece, and there are some key differences.

Stress: Put simply, stress is a short-term response to a given stimulus. Common sources of workplace stress include working long hours, having to complete a difficult or otherwise off-putting task. Stress is a normal part of human psychology, and not indicative of mental illness in and of itself.

However, over-exposure to stressful stimuli can cause both physical and mental health to deteriorate. This is why employers have a duty of care to protect their employees from undue workplace stress.

Anxiety: It can be easy to think of anxiety as a synonym for stress. After all, anxiety is the worry that things might go wrong, and it can certainly be a source of stress. But it's important to underscore the difference between anxiety the emotion, and anxiety the long-term mental health disorder.

Much like stress, the emotion of anxiety is a perfectly normal thing to experience from time to time. But diagnosed anxiety disorders stem from entrenched maladaptive thought processes. In other words, they aren't the kind of thing that people can just get over. Overcoming an ingrained anxiety disorder takes a long time, and more often than not, professional help.

Why do employees get anxious about performance reviews?

A lot of employees receive an annual performance review as their primary source of critical feedback. But although it's tradition, this way of doing things is arguably on the way out for obvious reasons. For one thing, annual reviews just can't deliver feedback in a timely manner.

Unless you've gone to great lengths to keep your staff informed about the state of their performance, chances are that they're going into their review meetings feeling a lot of ambiguity. A major source of performance review anxiety for employees is that they don't know what to expect.

Going into a 1:1 review without context is pretty unnerving. It's difficult not knowing if you'll be congratulated or admonished. Your staff need a proper framework for feedback between reviews that includes proper, accessible documentation. Your people need to be assured you won't only focus on recent performance.

In fact, the emphasis on regular feedback has increased significantly in recent years. A 2020 survey by Reflektive found that, since 2018, the number of employees expecting feedback on at least a monthly basis has increased by 89%. And the 170% of business leaders expecting this standard from their managers is even more significant.

But bosses and their staff don't seem to be on the same page. 85% of managers believed that their feedback request processes were clear. But only a quarter of employees agreed that they knew how to ask for feedback from their boss.

Performance review anxiety can be greatly diminished with a different approach.
Performance reviews shouldn't be built up as some 'fight or flight' event

How managers can protect staff from anxiety

Preventing performance review anxiety in your employees is a matter of removing ambiguity beforehand, and emphasising constructive personal development. It's about developing a culture of consistent feedback.

Set an agenda ahead of time

Giving your employee access to a meeting plan in advance of the review date can help them not to freak out too much because it cuts through the vague expectations and gives them a solid idea of what you're going to discuss.

Frame the review as a discussion, not a lecture

Make it clear that you're not just there to say what they did well, what they did poorly, and tell them why they're still lucky to have their job. It's important to establish a dialogue by actively listening to your employee. If they're telling you something, engage with it and ask questions. Speaking of which...

Encourage questions before, during, and after the review

The point of a performance review is to make sure you're on the same page with your staff members about how they're doing, and to help them to develop professionally. So encourage them to ask as many questions as they need to. This can open up new areas of discussion, and help you address their concerns about the workplace directly.

Focus on growth and the future

Perhaps the simplest way to tackle performance review anxiety in your organisation is by not using these meetings to tear employees a new one. Use performance reviews to emphasise targets for personal development and as a chance to discuss where your employees want to be in a few years.

Exchange feedback regularly between reviews

In terms of making the build up to a performance review less ambiguous and nerve-wracking, the most essential thing you can do is exchange regular feedback with your employees between review meetings. A weekly employee check-in is a timely and time-efficient way of keeping up with employee concerns and guiding their performance. It also means you'll both have a solid shared understanding of how the staff member in question is doing long before the review date is even set.

Why performance reviews can make managers anxious too

For employees who feel like they're really getting both barrels in a meeting, it can be easy to forget that your manager is a person too. And while the trajectory of their career rarely hinges on the outcome of these meetings in the same way, they can still be nerve-wracking experiences in their own right.

For starters, people respond to criticism in an unpredictable myriad of different ways. Giving constructive feedback to someone you're not sure even wants it can be drawn out and painful. That's true even when there isn't a serious problem to discuss.

Helping managers guard against performance review anxiety: Ensuring managers receive the proper training is essential for preparing them to handle performance review stress. Too many people are promoted into management roles without proper training. Training can give less experienced managers more confidence in their approach, and also ensures that they can regulate employee performance to an acceptable standard.

Practice makes perfect: Remember that each review you conduct is a chance to work on your approach. The same can be said for employee check-ins. So, when you review their update, take the opportunity to answer their responses and keep the lines of communication open between performance reviews. Being an effective mentor to your employees is something you really have to work at.

Our Customer Success and People Science teams work closely with all clients to help make performance reviews more effective, efficient and with fewer anxiety-inducing moments.