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

Performance reviews are often stressful for everyone involved, and if they’re your primary method of giving employee feedback, they can be a huge source of anxiety. 

But that doesn’t have to be the case. A feedback-centric workplace culture focussing on continuous performance management and frequent employee feedback 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, as we’ll be bouncing between the two terms quite a lot in today’s piece.

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. While stress is a normal part of human psychology, and not indicative of mental illness in and of itself, 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 are the result of entrenched maladaptive thought processes, and they aren’t the kind of thing that people can just get over. Overcoming an anxiety disorder takes a long time, and more often than not, professional help.

Why do employees get anxious about performance reviews?

Traditionally speaking, employees in many businesses are used to receiving an annual performance review as their primary source of critical feedback. But this way of doing things is arguably on the way out for obvious reasons. For one thing, annual reviews 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 meeting and not knowing if you’ll be congratulated or admonished, it’s perfectly understandable to be anxious. Without a proper framework for feedback between reviews that includes proper, accessible documentation, employees may also be worried that they’ll only be judged off of their manager’s recent memory of their performance. 

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. Even when you don’t have to discuss a serious issue with their workplace conduct, giving constructive feedback to someone you’re not sure even wants it can be drawn out and painful.

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 being properly up-skilled. 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.

To learn more about employee engagement, performance management and staff wellbeing as well as how Weekly10 is revolutionising workplace culture, visit the Weekly10 blog today!

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.