This amazing officer has the ability to juggle multiple balls at once.” – Personal evaluation comment

“The people at branch are going to think I’m crazy for writing this,” he said to me. “I don’t usually give people this good an evaluation the first time out.”

Sitting across from the colonel during my evaluation review, I scanned the document before me, paying close attention to not just what he wrote, but how he wrote. Crazy? Maybe. Crazy because the evaluation I was reading read like it was written by Cletus, the slack-jawed yokel. Crazy because it said almost nothing about my actual performance. Crazy because it was little more than a collection of random superlatives that didn’t even string together as complete sentences.

I was almost embarrassed to sign it. But the only things that mattered – quantification, potential, and overall “block check” – were firmly in place, even though everything else was a hot mess of gibberish. All things considered, signing a poorly written evaluation was probably smarter than pointing out the mistakes and demanding a re-write.

Why Writing Matters

Writing matters in performance evaluations. Regardless of whether you’re assessing your best subordinate or your worst, they deserve a well-written evaluation. With the former, you want to acknowledge them in every way possible, including the quality of the evaluation. With the latter, doing so is even more important considering the potential pitfalls of putting in an effort that matches their own.

No one expects a Hemingway-esque effort on every evaluation. But it’s fair to expect a competent effort. For a good writer, that’s usually not a problem. If writing isn’t your thing, however, set your ego aside and ask for help. I’ve known my share of senior leaders who struggled with composing even basic email, but they knew enough to populate their support staff with at least one or two “designated writers,” a position I held myself more than once.

AI is also here to help. AI-powered tools can significantly reduce the time spent on drafting evaluations by providing suggestions for specific phrases, diversifying language, and generating meaningful vocabulary. These tools can analyze performance data throughout the year, offering objective insights that help mitigate biases and enhance the fairness of reviews. However, it’s crucial to remember that AI should serve as an assistant to human judgment, not a replacement. Maintaining a personal touch is still on you.

Case in point: much of that paragraph was generated using Google Copilot.

The Dos and Don’ts of Performance Evaluations

Ultimately, writing an evaluation comes down to some basic rules. Whether you’re experienced at the process or new to the game, the rules are fundamental and help to ensure that you apply some consistency and a systemic approach to something that matters.


  • Use performance counseling. Routine performance-based discussions provide regular opportunities to give and receive feedback, review goals, and chart progress. Force yourself to schedule performance counseling on your calendar and commit to it.
  • Be honest. Give people the evaluation they deserve, the assessment they’ve earned. Save the effusive language for another time. Be direct, be concise, and be honest.
  • Be specific. Noteworthy accomplishments – positive or negative – should form the basis for evaluation. If you’re drawing on performance counseling and goal setting, this should be relatively easy.
  • Use data. Quantification not only reinforces the overall assessment of someone’s performance, but it also serves as a powerful tool for capturing performance trends.
  • Focus on the performance, not the person. Some people will just rub you the wrong way. Personalities impact the workplace and shouldn’t be ignored but focus on performance during the evaluation process.


  • Substitute a performance evaluation for a year of counseling. If a subordinate hasn’t performed to your expectations, the first time they hear that shouldn’t be during a performance review.
  • Sugarcoat the truth. If someone has failed to perform to an established standard, don’t layer an evaluation with false positivity.
  • Avoid the hard facts. While you don’t have to dwell on the negatives, they serve as a reminder that actions have consequences.
  • Cite the rumor mill. Scuttlebutt is common in every workplace, but it has no place in the performance evaluation process. Stick to the substantiated
  • Lose sight of the long view. It’s not unusual for performance to surge as evaluation season approaches. Don’t base a performance review on four weeks of hard work after 11 months of slacking. Focus on the entire performance cycle.

Finally, when the time comes, remember that a performance evaluation – good or bad – should always be delivered in person with enough time scheduled for a full conversation. If you anticipate a difficult discussion, consult with your human resources team. Whatever you do, don’t use email or a virtual meeting as an excuse to avoid a potential confrontation. If you’ve done your part, the conversation – however difficult – won’t come as a surprise.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.