Originally published Fall of 2013

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
– Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride.

Soon after starting in my career as an HR Business Partner, I made the decision to edit drafts of employee performance reviews written by managers. My motivation was generally to be helpful, but if I’m being honest, it was primarily to avoid the many horribly written reviews that I happened across up to that point.

What I found surprised me – regardless of where in the organization the employee resided, there was an over-reliance on code words that never really communicated anything. I found it inconceivable (sorry-couldn’t help it) that we’d so easily draw up the most important document articulating an employee’s ability and contributions for the year, and not apply a thorough editing and examination process. So, I threw myself into the breach.

Over the years, I started to see a key pattern emerge – variations of which I still run into today – which is this:

The three most misused and abused words in performance reviews are as follows: leadership, teamwork, communication.

What I found is that most of the time these words were used in virtual grammatical isolation, as awkward nouns in a sentence, armed with implied but hidden meaning. The sentences themselves would declare a conclusion and offer up virtually no supporting information to help the employee understand issues or concerns. They would look something like this:

“Westley needs to demonstrate a greater sense of leadership in…. “

“Princess Buttercup needs to focus on improving her teamwork and strive to become a team player….”

“Prince Humperdinck needs to improve his communication skills…..”

Communication clarity – how to bridge the gap

I loosely called my editing method the “Tom Test” and the bottom line was this: If I – not a content expert – could understand what the manager had written for the employee in the areas of growth opportunities for the coming year, then the writer likely had a clear picture of those items that the employee could understand and act upon.

So if you’ve seen any variations of the above examples in reviews you’ve either written or come across, consider this simple diagnostic approach to improve the clarity and communication impact (i.e., message sent, message received):

  1. Get a second opinion. If you’re the review author, have another person (position appropriate) read the key objectives and growth opportunities proposed for the employee in the coming year. Can they understand it or does it require an explanation from you? If the latter, consider reworking it.
  2. Revise. Leverage the strength of iterative writing improvements, by generating two or three drafts per employee review. People rarely produce their best written work the first time, and additional thoughts and insight tend to come to you over time. Let this work for you.
  3. Show your process. Regardless of what conclusions have been reached, provide some supporting elements that explain how you reached that conclusion. What if your employee thinks everything is better or far better than your assessment? How will you help them understand how you reached your judgments? The key is to focus on opening up your thought process. A simple question to ask yourself is: “What leads you to that conclusion?” It’s that part of your thinking that can often close the communication gap.

A poorly written performance review is a missed opportunity to actually connect and for an employee to digest meaningful feedback from their manager. For an employee it can mean the difference between remaining on the path of average or moving towards a higher level of performance. We’re all busy, but by not getting this right, we’re leaving too much upside on the table at a time when so many organizations desperately need it.

As Inigo Montoya observed atop the Cliffs of Insanity, the Sicilian had been using this word over and over, but as it was unattached to any real meaning, and said nothing. While you as the writer may ultimately do as you wish, we must be Managers of action. Such phrases do not become us.