Set short-term goals. Work with your employees to establish quantifiable objectives that can be met every week, month or quarter. This way, individuals can judge for themselves how they’re doing by harnessing their ability to attain these goals. As long as workers have a say in what’s expected of them in these short-term assignments, you can periodically review their performance in a more supportive setting rather than storing it all up for a formal annual appraisal.
Distribute “feedback cards.” Get two stacks of index cards in different colors (say, green and blue). Whenever you want to praise an employee, jot down your remarks on a green card and give it to her. If you want to give some constructive criticism, write your comments to her on a blue card. This approach may sound silly, but it has its advantages. First, you force yourself to keep your remarks concise to fit on the index card (you can always elaborate in person with the employee), which will make giving feedback seem less laborious. Second, after you distribute enough blue cards, you’ll lower everyone’s resistance to criticism. They’ll see that there’s no stigma attached, and this should make the whole team less defensive and more receptive to improving skills.
Issue private challenges. Meet regularly with staffers one-on-one and isolate some aspect of their performance (such as punctuality, accuracy, follow through) that needs improvement. Challenge them to sharpen their skills and create a timetable for them.