Performance reviews: Avoiding surprises

Corbet Fawcett
6 min readNov 16, 2021

It’s end of year for many companies. That makes it that most dreaded of seasons — performance review season.

This year I’m reminded of something I’ve learned along the way: Surprises at year end are no fun. Avoid surprises.

Consider a story: Many many years ago I worked remotely for a company. This was long before the advent of Zoom and remote collaboration tools. In this practically-Jurassic time our remote connections were limited to phone and email. This created a whole slew of visibility challenges for my remote team. These became particularly evident at year end.

I sailed into my own end of year phone call convinced I’d had a strong year. I had a laundry list of accomplishments in mind, a slew of projects delivered well and on time. And yet? And yet the conversation that followed took the wind out of my sails. My manager stunned me by bringing in some harsh feedback from the lead of another team. This feedback came out of the blue — there’d been no hint of issues beforehand. Worse, the feedback was already written into my review — a fait accompli. He said “she isn’t supporting us enough,” she said “here’s a very long list of all the work I’ve done for them.” The conversation between my manager and I immediately went sour. I was shocked, surprised, and on the defensive. He was delivering second-hand feedback and couldn’t provide any context. There was no opportunity to refute the feedback, get clarification, or deal with it. The feedback was inaccurate. It was not good. Similar stories emerged from coworkers. My remaining time with the company numbered mere weeks.

In hindsight the lesson was clear: End of year surprises are no fun. Avoid them. And yet I had to learn this a second time as a new manager.

A few years later I found myself leading a team. Going into performance reviews I sought out coworker input for an employee I didn’t work with daily. I did this with the best intentions. I thought this would bring in better feedback and let us have a more meaningful conversation. Unfortunately the feedback proved very negative. Worse, this also proved to be a surprise to my team member.

Yes, I unwittingly recreated my own terrible end of year experience for someone else. I still regret that.

End of year surprises are no fun.

So what have I learned and how have I tried to live that learning?

It comes down to communication and transparency, and there’s a part for both manager and employee to play.

Preventing surprises as an employee

Nobody likes going into a performance review feeling uncertain or nervous. That’s stressful. But there are a few things you can do to avoid surprises. The first involves creating feedback moments all year long. If the only feedback moment in the year is your performance review then you’re at high risk of surprises. So, consider asking for feedback throughout the year. Create openings for feedback.

“But isn’t that my manager’s job?” you may ask. Well yes, but it’s also yours. Delivering feedback can feel awkward and stressful for even seasoned leaders. They’re human. They may not know how to offer feedback in a positive and constructive way. They may like you and not want to hurt you. They may be a waiting for the perfect moment to talk to you. They may not realize you want feedback. There are lots of good reasons why your manager may hesitate to offer feedback.

But what if you ask for it? And not just once, but regularly? What if you create a consistent opportunity for it? If you do this you’re showing that you’re open to feedback. You meet your manager halfway. You create opportunities for feedback moments throughout the year. One good moment for this is in your 1:1s with your manager.

That’s part one of preventing surprises. Part two involves tracking your work and adding a good level of detail to your end of year review.

I’ve learned to be my own advocate when it comes to performance reviews. I keep notes through the year. At the end of each quarter I update my notes with any progress towards annual goals. All of these notes go into my year end review as comments. This helps ensure that the first half of the year isn’t lost to memory. These are things anyone can do, and they are things I encourage my teams to do for themselves. Keep a record. Capture your accomplishments. Add these to your self-evaluations.

Also, think about any challenges you ran into during the year. Be ready to talk about these in year-end conversations. This shows self-awareness and flags issues that your manager may be unaware of. But pro tip: The ‘no surprises’ mindset comes into play here too — it’s not good to surprise your manager at year end either. If you find yourself facing challenges during the year consider raising them early. That’s another great topic for your regular feedback conversations.

As year end approaches there’s one more thing to consider. Can your manager offer a balanced review? Do they see enough of your work? If you think the answer might be no, this is something you can tackle early. Consider suggesting a few people who could contribute feedback to your review. But don’t leave those requests to the last moment — give your manager lots of time to reach out and collect feedback.

Preventing surprises as a manager

Surprises at year-end can happen for a myriad of reasons, but as a leader you can do a lot to prevent them. You can create regular feedback moments, capture the full year, and treat year-end reviews as a collaboration.

Having regular feedback conversations is essential. Ask your team how they think they’re doing. Listen. If there’s a disconnect with how you think they’re doing, talk about that disconnect early. I try to hold regular 1:1s and quarterly feedback sessions with each of my team members. I also make a promise: No negative feedback from me appears in their final review unless we’ve seen and discussed it multiple times. This lets us talk about “could be better” feedback during the year without running into a wall of fear.

There are a couple other things within your power as a people leader. The first involves other peoples’ feedback. If you need to bring in others’ feedback for an end of year review, communicate this early and talk about why. If you don’t see your employee’s work daily then maybe you need to do this. Or if you have someone who’s only recently joined your team then maybe you need their previous manager’s input. There are good reasons to reach out to others, but doing this increases your risk of surprises. So if do you need to do this, be transparent with your team member. Talk about it well in advance. Consider also asking them who they feel could offer balanced feedback on their work. Make them a partner in their own feedback gathering, not a victim of it.

And then there’s the moment when you sit down to discuss end of year feedback with your team member. Before you dive into things, consider asking them what they expect to hear and what they’d be surprised to hear. This simple conversation starter can be amazingly powerful. It creates mutual openness — some genuine curiosity about the incoming feedback. It also creates a baseline for comparison. You can now share your own feedback and check back in. Where were there differences? What might have created that delta? Have a conversation about those differences. This could well be the most meaningful conversation of the year.

There’s one other thing that only you, a manager, can do. Don’t commit their review to the HR system before you’ve discussed the feedback together. Performance reviews should be an act of co-creation. Reviews are not just about your feedback on their performance; reviews are also about their feedback on it. For a better performance review conversation:

  • Ask for their perspective on the year
  • Talk through any differences between their feedback and yours
  • Capture a balanced summary in the final review

So don’t commit your draft to the system until you’ve had (and captured) that conversation.

Yes, this is more work. But it prevents a lot of unnecessary work — the work of trying to regain trust, the work of damage control, and possibly even the work of rehiring and restabilizing your team.

So where does that leave us?

Performance reviews are an important feedback moment. They can build trust or they can destroy it. Surprises at year end destroy trust. It takes work to avoid surprises, but it’s work that pays off in better relationships, in meaningful conversations, and in happier people.

No surprises.



Corbet Fawcett

User researcher. People leader. UX coach. Fascinated by people. []