The Dreaded Performance Review

I think it is safe to say that the performance review is something that most people love to hate.  And I think we hate it because although it starts out with noble intentions it tends to degenerate into an exercise without meaning.   Leaders hate it because it becomes just another thing to do.  And employees hate it because it rarely acknowledges their real contribution while being a determining factor in how they are paid.  In this scenario too, the performance review often becomes something we do to people rather than with them. Like going to the dentist for root canal, it has that tinge of dread about it.

But the reality is that performance assessment is important to both the organization and the people who work for it.  To achieve its goals and remain competitive, the organization must maximize on the capability and knowledge of its people. Likewise, to achieve their own ambitions and receive appropriate recognition for their contribution, people need a method of summarizing their accomplishments; identifying their learning needs and; planning their next steps.

Hopefully then, we can agree that while the principle of performance review is sound, where it often falls short is in the execution of the process.

So, what to do?  Well, probably a lot of things, but here are a few thoughts to begin with.

  • Performance assessment is a cooperative thing

In order for a performance assessment to be effective, both the leader and the individual must participate.  That means that each must find a way to connect with the other; discuss and agree on what is to be done and; talk about how they will measure it.  If, as leader, you simply deliver targets to people without that kind of engagement then you are giving up an opportunity to not only know what the individual can do, but also to recognize his or her future potential.

And, while on this topic, the leader must also:

  • Be Clear about Performance Goals and Expected Accomplishments

Ken Blanchard has some ideas about maximizing individual performance.  He believes that the task for leaders is to help people “get an A” on their performance assessment by being clear about what is expected of them.  I think he’s right.  Here’s a video of Mr Blanchard explaining his philosophy.

  • It is unrealistic to approach everyone in the same way

In many organizations I believe we spend inordinate amounts of time trying to level the playing field.  In other words we operate on the principle that equity means treating everyone in the same way.  But I say that being equal is not the same as being the same and human beings create a much more interesting and varied landscape than a level playing field suggests.

To me, that means that not everyone is going to fit comfortably into the boxes that performance review processes often ask us to comply with. So the challenge for the leader is to inject variety and individual attention into the process in service of achieving optimal results and satisfaction levels for everyone.

  • Performance assessment is not a once-a-year activity

In my experience, at the end of any given fiscal year, there was always a flurry of activity around getting performance assessments completed.  And, as human nature generally dictates, when it comes to doing things deemed unpleasant, most people tend to put them off until the last minute.  Because of this, the quality of a good many of the assessments was, well, questionable.  Some people were hard pressed to remember what they were actually measuring.  And of course others crammed as much meaningless rhetoric as possible into the reports rendering them impressive but not very useful.

If we are to give meaning to measuring performance and helping people build skill and experience, we have to pay a little attention to it every day.  It is part of the leader’s job to create working environments that invite participation and interest. Monitoring and measuring along the way provides performance benchmarks that allow people to see how they are doing at any given point.  This does not mean that you have to concentrate on this all of the time.  It does mean that you bring the notion of acknowledging individual performance into everyday conversations and routines.

There is of course a lot more involved in motivating others to perform and in accurately capturing the results, than can be covered in one blog post. But, maybe this can be a start of an interesting conversation.

If you have a performance review story or opinion that you would like to share, please do!



Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Establishing Direction, Leading Teams, motivating & Inspiring

11 responses to “The Dreaded Performance Review

  1. Your guidelines are terrific, but perhaps more important for me is the excellent context you provide that bring those guidelines to life. Thanks for the insightful post Gwyn.

    And I am sure the timing of this post is no accident. My clients are in the middle of pushing performance reviews out right now. It is painful. I have never seen it NOT be painful. Quite honestly I don’t think incremental improvement is going to cut it. And it is the perpetual “elephant in the room”.

    My coaching to one client this year was to declare a do-over! Until the leaders acknowledge the current reality that PR’s are “like a root canal” as you put it and choose to take a clear and unwavering stand for the opportunity, possibility and necessity of doing performance reviews well, PR time will continue to be like groundhog day. Except unlike Bill Murray we don’t seem to be learning to do that “day” better every time we get to repeat it!

    I wonder what we might we invent if we threw out the whole idea of a PR Process as “the” answer?

  2. Gwyn Teatro

    It’s not hard to find people who agree that the present system is painful. I love your reference to “Ground Hog Day” I hazard to say that it provides a very accurate summary of the effect PR review time has on the majority of people who are involved in them.

    So, now you have me thinking! What a great challenge it would be to throw out our current perception and practice of conducting performance reviews and invent something that actually worked for everyone! Something completely new.

    Maybe we could tap into the creativity of the twitterverse to find some folks who have ideas about this.

    What has to be present for a PR system to actually work? Does anything at all work in the current system? What gets in the way? So many questions.

    Thanks for bringing this post to life Susan. 🙂

  3. Gwyn, thanks for the thoughtful and well-done post on a source of great pain in business.

    We know that (most) employees are begging for feedback and guidance. Having been one who didn’t have one for a period of several years because senior management didn’t believe in performance evaluations (but didn’t offer anything to replace it), I know this to be true.

    So what if…..good coaching of employees were a required skill that all leaders had to have and use and were held accountable to? This would be exactly what you have put out there in terms of an ongoing activity. After all, a leader can’t give “feedback” well if he hasn’t provided ongoing, appreciative coaching. This coaching provides a solid foundation for establishing relationships with employees, and puts the monkey square on their backs to set goals and achieve them. There is a personal accountability there that the manager has given to the employee .

    So, if emloyees are coached, the once-a-year performance evaluation becomes easier, and aside from the written forms required (and who knows? maybe those will go away too), it becomes a relatively easy conversation, with the employee first weighing in on whether he achieved the goals he set and is responsible for. This is as it should be. A conversation. How novel.

    Simplistic? Pie in the sky? I know it is. In our top-down, manager-knows-all world, we’re a long way from coaching by the leadership being a required skill. However, I’ll still hold out hope, as this is our best chance of doing away with the dreaded performance evaluation.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Mary Jo. Like you, I believe that a manager who is skilled in coaching others has the best opportunity to take the misery out of performance reviews. It may be simplistic, as you say, but it is something to strive for.
      And, I think you have hit on something. If managers are not held in some way accountable for the quality and accuracy of the performance assessments they turn out, then the results will be pretty hit and miss, (well, in my experience more miss than hit).
      Somehow, we have to find a way to engage managers/leaders in the process so that it is clear to them that they have a stake in the outcome.

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  5. Great post Gwyn. I too often see this at companies as a once a year process with a “Thank goodness this is only once a year!” kind of attitude. If the manager is doing their job well throughout the year, the performance review is never a surprise to the employee and shouldn’t be such an onerous process.

    Great post!


    • Gwyn Teatro

      Thanks for weighing in, Gina. Yes, taking the “surprise” element out of the process would certainly help matters. The “surprise” is seldom a happy one 🙂

  6. I find that the performance review varies with the person doing the review. Some do view it as “I need to do this because I’m supposed to” and it becomes a meaningless check-the-box exercise that wastes the time of all those involved. Others do due diligence to the review and have meaningful conversations around peformance, expectations, and the like. Great, except most is forgotten as soon as the review is over. I liked that you pointed out that performance assessment is not a once-a-year activity. Regular meaningful feedback is key, and when conducted in an open atmosphere, brings forth greater value than the once-a-year review. Great post, Gwyn!

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  8. Isaak Estes

    Employees love getting positive reviews. They actually do take them home and show their family and hang them on the refrigerator. However, very few people enjoy or respond well to “constructive feedback”.

    Isaak Estes
    Leadership Coaching

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