Performance Reviews

The science of managing personnel isn’t all that different than other sciences in one interesting sense: ideas that seemed safe and smart when introduced can, over time, reveal themselves to be less than ideal; even harmful. Take, for example, performance reviews.

When performance reviews arrived onto the scene, they were embraced by managers for their promise to objectively evaluate performance, detect areas in need of improvement, and reward those who might otherwise have their contributions overlooked.   And for employees, they were excited by the promise of clear expectations, reliable feedback and linking performance to reward.

Unfortunately however, for many, the love faded over time.  And these days, more often than not, among both managers and workers, performance reviews enjoy a legacy of eroding morale, confusing expectations, undermining standards, and with staggering irony, actually lowering performance.  I am always surprised  by how many managers and employees perceive the process – one that was really developed with their needs in mind – as something they ‘have’ to do as a matter of due process (read: because HR is nagging them).

What Went Wrong?

Interestingly, the problem is not the very idea of performance reviews – they are still valuable when implemented correctly.  I suspect that the root cause of the misery lies in the following:

  • Many performance reviews attempt to achieve objectivity through what is, fundamentally, a subjective process. Instead of focusing on the work-related elements that should being evaluated (objective measurement), attention is inevitably drawn to the evaluator him/herself  (subjective measurement).  Not unlike school – managers (like teachers) are sorted into easy and hard graders.
  • Many employees feel condemned when they do not ‘exceed expectations’.  This is a result of the new workplace where ‘more’ is the norm and you have to ‘go above and beyond’ the ‘above and beyond’ in order to gain attention for your work efforts.  Very unfortunately, the evaluation of ‘meeting expectations’ has come to tacitly penalize competent workers who are simply doing their job the way they’re supposed to do it. That these workers aren’t over-achieving (at least according to the manager; see the point above) becomes a condemnation that they’re under-achieving.

How to Fix Things?

Fixing performance reviews so they provide value is challenging, but not impossible or even daunting. Furthermore, there is no need to rebuild/replace the performance reviews that an employer uses or wants to use (e.g. 360 feedback, etc.).

The fix lies in implementing performance reviews with the following guidelines:

  • Accept the subjective nature of performance reviews, and take ownership of that feature. Since managers have (whether they truly want it or not) the power to subjectively grade a performance review, they must also accept the responsibility to communicate how and why they grade the way they do. This helps turn attention away from the grade and the grader, and towards the meaningful information that comes from the performance review itself.
  • Talk about the performance review form. Here’s a secret that needs to be brought unto the clarifying light of blatant truth: many managers don’t know how to fill out the performance review form. For example, a manager ranks a worker as  a “3 out of 5” on a particular question, but is unable to explain his/her rationale (why not a 2? Why not a 4? And so on). Often, the reason for this confusion is the performance review form itself – it “forces” the manager to address an issue in a certain way that is either incomprehensible or inapplicable. When this happens, managers should talk to the worker about the issue pointed to by the question, and build an action plan (if necessary) from there.
  • Create consistency across the organization where possible. Managers should communicate with each other to strive for some sense of organizational consistency in performance review grading. When this is not possible due to structural, cultural or other differences, these inconsistencies should be clearly identified, and managers should be prepared to discuss these differences with workers if they arise as issues.
  • Revisit rating scales on a regular basis, and be prepared to change them. Ratings scales aren’t carved in stone, and shouldn’t be treated as sacred. Perceptions change, cultures change, expectations change, and most certainly, rating scales change as well – or at least, they should change whenever they cease to lose their “common sense” and no longer apply. For example, earlier the point was raised about how meeting expectations has become, in some workplaces, synonymous with under-performing. This is a clear call to change the rating so that “meeting expectations” recaptures its original, non-critical meaning, and rather than criticizing an employee, actually applauds them for doing a solid job. Also keep in mind that there are some situations where taking away the rating scale altogether is wise, as it would make the performance review process more effective.

Workplaces need to recapture the spirit of the performance review process and form.  Performance reviews (should) exist to help achieve workplace goals. When performance reviews cease to provide this outcome – that is, when they cease to be useful, beneficial tools – then managers must either adjust or replace them before they continue doing more damage; some of it lasting and very difficult to repair.

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