2020 Year-End Reviews: It’s All About the Questions

Guest Post by Julie Winkle Giulioni

This is the year that no one planned for or could ever have expected. 2020 had barely begun when all of those SMART goals, achievable KPIs, development plans, and performance improvement strategies went right out the window. COVID-19 has turned businesses upside down, shifting priorities, redefining the role of essential workers, sending many employees to “work-from-home” under less than ideal conditions, introducing new safety protocols and customer needs, and ushering in complexity and never-expected challenges…. just to name a few.

While it’s tempting to just want to put 2020 in the rearview mirror, before you can do that, you need to conduct year-end employee performance and review conversations. This annual tradition (which many leaders find challenging under the best of circumstances) has become considerably more complex. This year, managers find themselves:

  • Uncertain about how to even begin such a conversation in 2020;
  • Wondering how to hold people accountable during a year when nothing went as planned;
  • Concerned about how to maintain motivation in the face of countless missed goals; and
  • Dreading planning for their reviews.

Yet, despite the complexity, this year’s reviews may be the most consequential of all. Employees desperately need to connect, celebrate and calibrate their efforts going forward. Conducting these conversations will have a powerful effect on employee satisfaction, well-being and motivation.

And, here’s the good news. Preparing for a productive employee performance and development review may be a lot easier than you realize. Particularly if you appreciate the value of questions.

Employees consistently report that most insightful and inspiring reviews are the ones where they’re prompted to think deeply, engage candidly, and generously share their perspectives. The quality of these conversations rests squarely upon the quality of the questions and the questioning skills of leaders.

So, how can you incorporate high-value questions into their year’s reviews?


Inquire about…

With questions like….

People have a deep need for connection – now more than ever before. You can help to meet that need through your genuine and authentic care. How the employee

is really doing

  • How are you juggling everything in life?
  • How are you taking care of yourself and your needs?
This year has been such an anomaly, consider flipping the script and starting the conversation in a very different fashion. The employee’s perspective of the organization’s performance
  • Where has the organization stepped up and performed well over the past year?
  • What makes you proud of us as an organization?
After a rough year filled with disappointments and displacement, it’s more important than ever to offer employees an opportunity to wallow in their wins. Successes and accomplishments
  • What went particularly well for you?
  • Where did your efforts really pay off?
This year has brought shortfalls, unmet goals, missed expectations, and partially achieved objectives that must be acknowledged, processed, and learned from. Unreached

(but still valid)


  • What strategies did you implement or what actions did you take to make whatever progress was possible?
  • Which of your strengths and talents supported what you were able to achieve?
This year – even more than others – it’s critical to help employees reflect deeply upon how they’ve grown and how they can leverage that learning in today’s uncertain business landscape. Growth and learning
  • What are the most important lessons you’ve learned over the past year?
  • How have your expertise and ability to contribute grown?
Future focus
  • What do you hope to achieve in the coming year?
  • What how do you want to grow your skills, knowledge of network?

This line of inquiry and these questions are designed specifically to foster reflection, spark insights, allow for celebration, unlock ideas, encourage exchange, instill accountability and facilitate the rich and motivating conversations that employees need and want as 2020 comes to a close.But remember: The questions you ask only open the door. If you want employees to walk through, leaders must also ensure that that they bring to the conversation a genuine desire to connect and learn from the discussion. They must embody a spirit of curiosity and be comfortable with the silence that’s a natural part of deep dialogue. And they need to be prepared to offer the support employees need.This might have been the year that no one planned for. But a well-constructed, question-based performance and development review can optimize the learning from 2020 and turn it into focus for a more productive 2021.

Looking for additional ideas and resources to ensure effective year-end employee performance and development reviews? Download our complimentary e-toolkit, Hot Mess? Dumpster Fire? Train Wreck? You Still Have to Conduct Year-End Reviews. In it, you’ll find a novel way to get employees to prepare, a roadmap to a productive conversation, the must-ask questions, pitfalls, tips for handling it remotely, and even strategies for addressing the dreaded money question.

Julie Winkle Giulioni


Julie Winkle Giulioni works with organizations worldwide helping to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to learn, grow and develop their potential. She’s the co-author of the Amazon and Washington Post bestseller, Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want. Julie has been identified by Inc. Magazine as one of the Top 100 Leadership Speakers. She contributes her thought leadership to The Economist, The Conference Board’s Human Capital Exchange and other publications including her blog: JulieWinkleGiulioni.com



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