By Wayne Turmel

The end of the calendar year is often the time both managers and employees dread: the annual performance review. We’re not going to go into all the ways people do them incorrectly, or why everyone hates them; you can do that on your own. Even when you are face-to-face and physically comfortable, these discussions can be uncomfortable, awkward, and poorly conducted.

But what about when you are separated by distance and the conversation is going on at a distance? While being face-to-face is always preferable for a conversation that has so many potential consequences, it’s not always possible. So, if you do have to have this performance review discussion by phone or (preferably) webcam, here are three rules for making them truly effective and motivating.

  1. Demonstrate that the conversation is both critical and a priority. The performance review conversation has great significance to the employee. This is often (unfortunately) the only time of year they are guaranteed to get in-depth feedback and information on their job performance. It’s stressful, awkward, and often tinged with fear. Now take that conversation and try to hold it on a crackling cell phone while you’re waiting for a plane. Background noise, distractions and lost focus will not only increase the chances of misunderstanding, but sends a tacit message that this conversation isn’t as important to you as the other things you’re doing. Always make sure you have blocked plenty of time for this discussion, that you are in a place you can truly concentrate, and that you have the best possible audio and video connections. The other person should know how seriously you’re taking this conversation.
  2. Make the conversation as rich as possible. We discuss richness in communication a lot here, because it’s important. When you work remotely, it’s easy to sacrifice richness for convenience. For example, it’s easy and convenient to hold a cell phone conversation from your car. But can you really listen when dodging traffic? Are you aware of the little signals that show the person is not really being forthcoming with information, or might become defensive? Truly “rich” communication requires a mix of verbal, vocal and visual cues that give you a deep understanding of what is being said as well as what’s not being said out loud but impacts the quality of the communication. That’s why it’s best to hold these conversations in person. Barring that, though, the best way to get the non-verbal and facial cues you need to not only understand, but convey, your own empathy and attention is through video. Webcams aren’t perfect, but they do help communicate more effectively. And this call shouldn’t be the only time you use them… the more comfortable people are talking to each other on camera, the less it will be an obstacle when the stakes are high.
  3. Time is of the essence, but not in the way you think. There’s a tendency when communicating remotely to want to save time and be as efficient as possible. This can lead to several behaviors that can negatively impact your performance review. First, we tend to ignore the social niceties that help both of you relax and create an empathetic social relationship. “How are the kids?” matters. Secondly, when we are pressed for time, we want to be efficient and make sure we cover everything on our agenda. Too often this means either speaking first, and having the person constantly responding to our questions and comments ( a sure way to put them on the defensive), or not really following up on cues that indicate there may be more to what they say or that they should explain more fully. As soon as we hear “yes or no” it’s on to the next question. When we say “time matters”, it doesn’t mean you have to save as much of it as possible. It means we need to make sure we provide sufficient time to make the performance review conversation valuable and positive.

Performance review conversations are difficult enough. When you add the challenges of lost visual cues and mediating our discussions through technology, the margin for error becomes greater. Of course, if you have regular coaching on performance goals, and use the technology regularly, these become much smaller barriers to successful communication.

To learn more about coaching and providing feedback at a distance, check out our powerful program, Effective Remote Coaching and Feedback, available as a live workshop or on demand.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. You can pre-order Kevin and Wayne’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, now.

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