It’s annual review time again, and you feel the tension in the group fitness studio. Regardless of experience level, instructors tend to become anxious around “judgment day.” It’s a nerve-racking experience to have a supervisor watching your every move and jotting down notes. “Does she like the class?” “Are my cues strong enough?” “Did I offer the correct modification?” These questions and many like them create a distraction, when instructors should be concentrating on class participants. However, with a few simple tricks and preparation tools, you can make the evaluation process much more pleasant.

Eliminate Surprises

Fear of the unknown can be stressful, so help instructors feel at ease from the beginning. Make an effort to eliminate surprises by using proper communication and providing frequent feedback.

Explain processes and expectations. Talk about the review process before you schedule evaluations. It’s that easy. Give ample notice, and certainly do not surprise an instructor during class. Plan the observation in advance, and share the importance of the process, your expectations during and afterward, and your desired outcomes for follow-up meetings.

Randi Whitman, owner of Frog Temple Pilates in Chicago, conducts scheduled, yearly evaluations. She uses the process to help her instructors improve and grow as individuals. “I observe my instructors teaching actual clients,” Whitman notes. “I pay close attention to their exercise knowledge, language, lesson flow, hands-on work and imagery. I want to know how well they understand the body. That being said, my staff knows that I act as a mentor and that evaluations also include pep talks. They’re a time for positive feedback, individual growth, and appreciation of accomplishments—not a time to be afraid. This helps us connect and work as a team.”

Provide frequent feedback. Performance communication doesn’t have to take place only during a formal, annual meeting. If you feel your yoga instructor does phenomenal work with pre- and post-natal clients, say so now. If your strength circuit teacher has received a compliment about his professional demeanor, let him know. Comment on instructors’ positive qualities on a more consistent basis—to boost their confidence and to give cues that they are performing well. Anxiety levels will be much lower come evaluation time.

By the same token, if a performance issue surfaces, tackle the problem in a timely manner. Don’t wait until the end of the year, because that may allow the behavior to become habitual and acceptable. For example, if an instructor is frequently late for work, simply reinforce your employment standards and expectations. Then that person won’t be blindsided if you need to discuss the problem during the formal review.

Staff Involvement

Give employees a role in the review process. Dale Huff, CSCS, co-owner of NutriFormance – Fitness, Therapy, and Performance and of Athletic Republic Performance Sports Training—both in St. Louis, Missouri—has owned a successful business for more than 17 years. Huff has managed over 200 employees with various backgrounds and specialties, and he feels that “if you don’t get employee buy-in and participation with the review process, it is almost useless. Let them be heard and feel valued.”

Here are a few ideas:

Require self-reviews. Giving employees a stronger voice about their own performance—both positive and negative—empowers them. When you add an employee’s opinion to the process, it opens the door for a cooperative conversation instead of a one-sided meeting where the manager spells out what is “right” or “wrong.” Self-reviews can uncover accomplishments and challenges that may not be completely evident during a once-a-year observation. They may also help soften constructive criticism. When the employee agrees with you about an area that needs improvement, the conversation becomes less critical and more productive.

Set goals, and plan for the future. Consider the following scenario: A veteran instructor, looking for a little change, is enthusiastic about yoga and is interested in teaching a Pilates/yoga fusion class. Because you’re looking to broaden your client base and this instructor’s performance has been stellar over the past year, this is great news. Together, you establish goals that focus on education, preparation and implementation of the new class. This is a win–win situation where a deserving employee follows a passion, increases earning potential and feels valued.

Another instructor may be struggling to connect with your active/older-adult clientele. You want to teach this instructor to work properly with seniors, including making modifications, teaching chair-based exercises, offering cuing tips and so on. You design a plan in which you’ll review and apply a few guidelines each month. When you work with staff on goal setting, it gives them a clear understanding of your expectations and sets measurable performance benchmarks for the upcoming year.

Goal setting is a significant element of Huff’s review process. “A lot of the time, preparation and thought are necessary for a successful review,” he explains. “I enjoy the review process, as we tend to look forward and set four to five objectives for each employee to strive for in the upcoming year. Give your employees any essential information to prepare ahead of time, so they come in ready and prepared to talk about their own goals.”

Ask for feedback. Whether your review process is new or has been in place for years, ask employees for feedback. Do they like the process? Do they feel it is effective? Is it overly stressful? Develop a short survey, schedule a staff meeting or just casually ask for opinions and advice. If you make a few adjustments based on input, instructors will see that you’re listening and that you want the process to work.

Promote Conversations, Not Confrontation

As an owner or a manager, it’s your job to promote annual reviews as being a positive experience. Therefore, let it be known that this is a time for conversation, not confrontation. Encourage a professional discussion regarding what’s working, what’s not, likes, dislikes, goals, aspirations and challenges. Let your instructors know that you don’t want to do all the talking and that you expect them to participate in the conversation. When discussing a performance issue, explain that the ultimate goal is to help each employee progress and grow. Work collectively to create a resolution plan that will remedy the situation and help everyone move forward.

There may always be stress about annual reviews. However, you are in a position to make positive changes in communication, increase staff input and promote professional conversations. The action steps shared above are simple, inexpensive and worthwhile changes that you can incorporate into your current procedures. Employees will feel more at ease and more confident, which leads to open and honest exchanges that can build, not break, professional relationships.