The Performance Review & Some Ugly Truths

Last week, I wrote a post about “The Dreaded Performance Review”,something that everyone so loves to hate.

For a while, this blog post kind of just sat there.  Some people kindly picked it up on their Twitter radar but overall, I felt that its impact was, well, kind of flat.  So I, for one, was eager to move away from it and talk about something else.

And then I began to think that my eagerness to put the discussion behind me was not unlike the very real tendency for organizations to plough through the performance review process quickly… primarily to get away from it.

I think it is partly because performance reviews require human beings to make judgements on each other.  There are some inherent dangers associated with that.  And there are some ugly truths too. For instance:

The Ugly Truth about Some Bosses is that:

  • Managing performance well requires coaching skills that many bosses have not acquired.  Many new leaders are promoted to the role of ‘boss’ with very little advanced training or support; and some of those not-so-new bosses get easily stuck in an old mindset that views coaching as an alien concept with few redeeming features.
  • Some bosses don’t actually understand what their employees do or how their roles fit in the organization. These leaders find it embarrassing to ask because they know they ought to know.  And so, when it comes time to complete a performance review on such an employee, they guess and resort to generalities that fail to clearly identify the real contribution the employee has made.
  • Some bosses aren’t that interested in what others are doing or how they do it as long as they do what they’re told. Of course, they can’t say that and be politically correct as well, and so often this attitude is disguised by using  nondescript statements like, “ this employee performed satisfactorily in this area”…not very helpful.

The Ugly Truth about Some Employees is that:

  • In general, criticism is a hard pill to swallow, even the constructive kind.  Our response to it is to defend our positions, our actions, our territory rather than search for even the smallest grain of truth in what is being said.  I think we do this because often, we aren’t clear about what we are being measured against and; we quite naturally fear negative consequences.

The Ugly Truth about Performance Review Systems is that:

  • In an effort to get more specific about what is being measured, Performance Review systems have this tendency to become very cumbersome and complex. When a boss is faced with having to complete a lot of these, it is no wonder that they fail to do justice to them.
  • Personal bias is our constant companion.  Those who say they have a performance review system that excludes personal bias are, at best, being naïve.  Good bosses will recognize the bias factor and make attempts to achieve balanced accounts of employee performance in spite of it.  Not-so-good bosses will not and this renders the system itself unstable and pretty much unfair.

In spite of all these, so-called ugly truths, I continue to believe that individual performance assessment is integral to successful businesses and organizations.  For one thing, when executed well, they enroll and involve people in their own development and inspire them to give their best effort.  And that produces optimal results for the business.

For another thing, Wally Bock, a leadership expert and author of the blog, Three Star Leadership, asked the question, “How do you manage talent and knowledge?” Well, I don’t know for sure but perhaps a performance assessment process, when executed well, might be a good place to start to acknowledge and collect this kind of information.

Finally, how might the ugly truths I talk about be addressed?  Here are a few briefs comments on that:

For Bosses:

  • If you don’t have the coaching skills you need to motivate, challenge, encourage and demand optimal performance from your team, make it a priority to learn and practice them.  They will serve you well and your people will respect you for it.
  • If you don’t understand what your people do, listen and learn or consult others who do know.  Until you do, it is highly likely that you are not qualified to conduct any kind of individual performance assessment on them.
  • If the truth is that you are not interested in what they do, you are essentially abdicating your role as a leader. Either get interested or go and find a job that will allow you to work without leadership responsibilities

For Employees

  • If you spend your time rationalizing your actions and making excuses for why you did or did not do something, you are essentially wasting time that could be better spent examining what you need to learn or do differently to get what you want.

For People Who design Performance Review Systems

  • Keep the process simple.  Here are four questions that come to mind for me to begin with:
    • What does your best work look like?
    • What do you need from me to do your best work?
    • What do you need to learn?
    • How will we know when you’ve accomplished it?

Last week, I received some insightful comments from some very smart women, among them, Susan Mazza and Mary Jo Asmus.  I urge you to read these comments on my last week’s blog post and then read their own blogs, Random Acts of Leadership and Intentional Leadership.  You won’t be sorry.

In the meantime I’d be delighted to receive your ideas and comments about how to build a better, or even a different performance assessment “mousetrap”  Perhaps together, we can bring about a positive change to a process that has, in my view anyway, long out-lived its ‘sell by’ date.



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

16 responses to “The Performance Review & Some Ugly Truths

  1. Hi Gwyn,

    It seems organizations are tweaking and re-tweaking their PR programs for a variety of reasons. But if we can get the HR people to sit still long enough to dig a bit deeper on the crux of the problem, it often goes to the issue of managers not knowing how (or having discomfort with) the PR conversation which generally includes areas the employee needs to improve (feedback) and what kind of development efforts are needed. Wow.

    My advice: give them some skill development in feedback and coaching. I mean the kind where they get experiential practice at it. Increase their comfort level in this way, and that might go a long way toward improving the “process”.

    BTW, this only works if it is modelled by the upline in the organization! This is not the place for Sr. management to be throwing “training” at the troops while denying that they don’t need to also increase their skill level.

  2. Gwyn Teatro

    Great advice, Mary Jo. I especially subscribe to your last point and that is that training of this nature cannot be successful unless Senior Management participates and shows the way. After all, they have to do PRs too and it is just as likely to be the more senior people who do it badly.

    “Throwing training” at people, as you know, can be a waste of time and money if you have no role models for what is being taught. In my experience, some senior executives believe that providing training is all they have to do.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments and for adding value to the post!

  3. Good and comprehensive post, Gwyn. I see it breaking down into two basic issues. Issue one: we don’t select and train bosses to the things they need to do in order to succeed as bosses. I know there are materials for that. My Working Supervisor’s Support Kit is one of them.

    Issue two: We have created giant, wheels-within-wheels systems that send the message that performance evaluation happens once a year, using the designated form, not several times a day in mostly informal conversation.

  4. Gwyn Teatro

    I agree and I agree.

    I’d be willing to guess that there are a lot of bosses out there who really want to do well. They simply don’t know where to go to get started. Materials such as you and others provide should get more “play” especially in large organizations which tend to spend big dollars on large elaborate training initiatives without a visible return.

    Breaking away from the wheels-within-wheels systems is more difficult. The message in your blog post about shifting culture speaks to this well.

    Perhaps culture is slowly shifted, one component at a time. Changing perspectives and practices around performance review systems seems to me to be a pretty good place to start.

    Thanks for coming by Wally

  5. Great post, thank you.

    I’m currently writing about this in my new book for middle managers – here are a few thoughts for bosses to add to the discussion . . .

    Regular feedback – good and bad as it happens – can obviate the need for performance reviews or appraisals. OK, you might still have to fill in the paperwork, but if you give your people regular feedback as it happens (and in a more regular way as one manager I know who has a one hour session with one of his six reports every week), then the actual session becomes a mere formality.

    In summary, the two most important things every manager needs to do are:
    • Set and agree performance expectations
    • Ensure regular feedback is provided

    The role of Performance Appraisals or Performance Reviews . . .

    Both the words “appraisal” and “review” describe a process of looking backward. Why not use the required review session to look forward? In fact, these sessions would be better named “Performance Preview Sessions”. Now, you might say, “Yes, well that’s what I already do in my review sessions with my people”. Here’s a (perhaps telling) question for you, “What do you remember most about the last review session you had about your own performance with your manager?” Unfortunately for many people, when asked this question, the first things that come to mind are the things they didn’t do so well. What did you think of?

    People who have great managers, look forward to their performance review sessions because they know exactly what to expect. They have been given regular feedback and the review session becomes a positive, forward looking event, generally covering plans for their personal development.

    People who have poor managers, dread the prospect of their review sessions – they know it will either be quite negative or brushed over very quickly without real thought for the person’s performance or career.

    Bosses, if you give your people regular feedback on their performance as it happens, then the formal “review” sessions can be devoted entirely to looking forward – to discussing performance objectives and your expectations. This approach is quite different from the sharing of good and bad news (the “feedback” sandwich as it is sometimes referred to) in normal review sessions. On the other hand, by their very nature, performance preview sessions are very positive and highly motivational.

    Bob Selden,
    author “What To Do When You Become The Boss”

  6. Gwyn Teatro

    Wow. Thanks for your thorough comments Bob.
    I like the idea of “previews”. It certainly has a more positive ring to it and invites a future focused conversation. I think too, that there still has to be room for the “review” as well, whether you do it daily of weekly or monthly, keeping abreast of the progress one is making against stated goals and reviewing what changes could be made to make it better is, in itself, a positive action.

    Thanks for coming by! 🙂

  7. Hello Gwyn,

    I have one review copy of my book “What To Do When You Become The Boss” left. If you or one of your readers would like to review the book on Amazon for me, I’d be happy to send the last copy.

    If you’re interested, please send me a mailing address and I’ll post it off ASAP.


    Bob Selden,

  8. (Applause) Good for you, Gwyn, for tacking this topic not once, but twice! Excellent contributions from the comments, too.

  9. Gwyn Teatro

    Thank you Joe! Yes, tackled it twice and still alive to tell the tale! 🙂

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  11. Gwyn,

    You are a courageous lady. Tackling a very difficult subject, not once but twice! Thanks for your insights.

    You may be interested in a 3 pager written by Lauren Keller Johnson, “Alternatives to the Performance Reviews”. Here’s a link

  12. don't compromise

    All good, and all good comments too. But saddened to see no-one use the words ‘reward’ or ‘recognise’: the performance we get is the performance we have inspired. (Should ‘inspire, feedback, reward’ be the PM equivalent of ‘mirror, signal, manouevre’?) As a music lover, I’m frequently reminded on snatches of pop lyrics, but PM as a topic always makes me think of David Bowie’s line “Don’t stay in a bad/sad place where they don’t care how you are”. People with bad managers don’t just dread performance reviews, they also wonder why they should care when their manager plainly doesn’t: how can that possibly inspire anyone as a tacit message?

    And entirely agree with Wally, particularly on the frequency issue. One characteristic of good feedback is that it is timely. And there really *is* no time like the present.

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  14. Onve again you make some excellent points Gwyn. I applaud your tenacity in coming at this topic again – it is so important.

    Here are some thoughts this post provoked…

    Since performance review processes are usually administered as part of the process for making compenstation decisions I wonder how effective the traditional process can ever be used for development. For employees the name of the game is to make sure what goes in writing is as positive as possible. It is all too often a time for proving how great you have done to ensure you get the biggest possible raise or bonus. So if that is what a boss is “speaking into” how can any feedback that can remotely be construed as negative, no matter how constructive or valid, have a chance of doing anything other than be cause for an unpleasant interaction and even a conflict?

    Because of this I think we need to do a much better job training managers in making grounded assessments, positive and negative, and in particular in how to give the tough feedback.

    Also, given the tie of the annual appraisal to compensation I don’t think a peformance review is a time to coach anyone or do any planning for the future. In my opinion it is a time to make a grounded assessment about how well the employee delivered on their promises for the year and that is it.

    Coaching, development, objectives setting, etc. are of course essential. But I think the annual PR is not the time. If you do those things well throughout the year though the chance of a PR that can be grounded and accepted (not to mention painless) increases significantly.

  15. Sudhir Mathew

    You, Wally and Bob Seldeg and the others hit the nail right on the head. Samuel Culbert has a great article on “Get rid of performance reviews”. He hates traditional performance reviews for a number of reasons you have already covered and others like the review process does not really determine the pay raise, the subjective nature of the review process, and most importantly it is such a big disruption to teamwork. The tension and the pressure that performance review process brings about is enormous. The relationship between the boss and his subordinate gets severely undermined. Also, it’s mostly the employees performance that is always the problem being discussed. Very rarely is the joint partership between the boss and the subordinate ever discussed. Culbert advocates holding performance ‘preview’ meetings – the discussion should be about tasks to be accomplished in the future and not about what has already taken place -the outcome of which cannot be changed. And most importantly, the meeting needs to happen frequently not just annually. Performance evaluation needs to be a process not an event.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Thanks for weighing in Sudhir. I like your comment about the joint partnership between boss and subordinate. You’re right. That is a relationship that is rarely discussed.

      Thanks for coming by and the time you took to contribute a meaningful comment.

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