How to Do Performance Reviews Better
CEO & Founder
The notorious performance review has become a modern-day torture tactic somehow accepted into the canon of corporate best-practices. Year after year, millions of employees file into their annual review with an enthusiasm befitting a dental cleaning. Here’s how you measured up. Here’s where you did well, and here’s where you fell short. Now get back out there, tiger!
Inspiring, right? Except research shows it really, truly isn’t.
According to Gallup, “only 14% of employees strongly agree that performance reviews inspire them to improve.” And this seems to only be a symptom of a larger problem: “95% of employees are dissatisfied with their company’s appraisal process,” and “90% don’t believe that the process provides accurate information.” The upshot seems clear: we’ve lost faith in the performance review. Not surprisingly, in light of this, some have called for pulling the plug on the whole exercise altogether.
That would be a mistake. Yes—the net result of most performance reviews is that they are unproductive at best, and counterproductive at worst. But when done effectively, an annual review can be fruitful and even enjoyable. As a business owner, I count on performance reviews. They are an instrumental piece of how my colleagues and I move forward as a cohesive team. My colleagues don’t experience a performance review like a dental cleaning at all—more like a vision exam, after which the patient can see more clearly than they had before.
The problem is many managers have got it all wrong when it comes to performance reviews. We can begin to shift our relationship to them by dispelling three common misconceptions about the dreaded performance review:
#1- A Performance Review Is Not Feedback
(It’s a Checkpoint)
Feedback that happens once per year isn’t feedback at all—it’s an ambush. A review isn’t an opportunity to litigate what did and did not go well—especially if those events happened a while back. “Well, let’s see here, in February, Michelle said that you handed your report in a week late, so clearly we have some work to do in the area of accountability.” This feedback is missing all sorts of context that may not be readily available all this time later. That conversation needed to happen months ago. (Like, in February!)
Gallup found that “when managers provide weekly (versus annual) feedback, team members are:
- 5.2X more likely to strongly agree that they receive meaningful feedback.
- 3.2X more likely to strongly agree that they are motivated to do outstanding work.
- 2.7X more likely to be engaged at work.”
Performance reviews, as opposed to feedback, are more thematic in nature. Broader in scope. At the 50,000 foot level. They’re about stepping back and taking stock. Where are we now? Where are we going? How will we get there?
#2 – A Performance Review Is Not About “You”
(It’s About “Us”)
As a first step in the performance review, many managers tend to dive right into the subject of the review: How did they perform? Where are the gaps in their performance, and how do we address those gaps? Right off the bat, this sets an accusatory tone for the review. It shines a harsh spotlight onto the colleague being reviewed, making the exercise feel like an interrogation, an appraisal of their worth and value. That’s a dynamic that’s bound to have the evaluated (and likely the evaluator as well) feel awkward and uncomfortable. It is not a recipe for productive conversation.
The way around this is to begin the conversation differently. Do not begin by asking: “How have you performed? How have your projects stacked up?” but rather: “Where do you see us going, as a company/organization? What does the future look like?” This is a way to establish common ground right from the get-go and align on the major outcomes that are important to both people. This will set an entirely different context and tone for the interaction.
For example, when Martha from marketing comes in for her review, we wouldn’t start with, “How has that email marketing campaign performed over the past 12 months?” We’d start with: “Martha, tell me what you see about where we’ve been and where we are going with marketing?” Martha might respond: “Well, I think we’ve been doing well with small and mid-size firms, but I think we’re ready to take the leap to enterprise-level clients. The big dogs. The Fortune 500. And I think marketing is how we get there.” Wow. Different conversation. It’s not just a micro conversation about the open rates of our marketing emails. It’s a macro conversation about high-level strategy for fulfilling a major outcome.
#3 – A Performance Review Is Not a Court Hearing
(It’s a Conversation)
Okay, okay. That’s all fine and well. But at some point in the review, we’re going to have to roll up our sleeves and talk about where this person fell short. And that’s going to be so uncomfortable, right?
It’s true that performance reviews are often uncomfortable. But that’s because instead of treating it like a conversation, we treat it as a dictation. This creates an uneven power dynamic between the evaluator and the evaluated.
At our company, we do away with this dynamic altogether. I don’t dictate the evaluation to my direct reports. We both do that evaluation together. This isn’t a manner of speaking. We literally do the evaluation together. We each assess their performance in a variety of domains ahead of the meeting, on a scale from 1-5. And the meeting itself isn’t about me issuing evaluations. Instead, we simply compare notes.
Marcus, you gave yourself a 1/5 when it comes to follow-through, but I gave you 4/5! What had you rate yourself so low?”
“Vera, you gave yourself a 5/5 when it comes to speaking up when you are overwhelmed, but I gave you a 2/5, recalling a few times this year when it seems like you hid out for days at a time. Let’s talk more about that…”
This results in an “engaging with” as opposed to a “talking at” experience for both parties, allowing for a much more fruitful dialogue. This way, we can actually get to the heart of the discrepancies and pave a pathway for development and accomplishing what matters.
Giving the Performance Review Another Chance
The performance review has been much maligned, and I understand the reasons why. But before throwing in the towel on the exercise altogether, let’s first try to shift our relationship with the performance review–from a formality to be endured to an opportunity to connect, align, and co-create a future.
LEARN HOW WE DO PERFORMANCE REVIEWS!
Episode 33 of the Leadership Impact Podcast