Irony of Annual Performance Reviews


The workplace is wrought with contradictions – “we trust and empower you to make decisions, but make sure you send me updates every day to tell me what you are doing and bring your ideas to me to approve”; or, “productivity is really important so let’s have another 2 hour meeting about how we can be more productive”; or, “we really appreciate internal talent and promote from within but I’m afraid you don’t have the outside experience we are looking for to promote you to the next level.”  All frustrating no doubt. But one thing stands out as the bane of a manager’s year as well as a soul crushing experience for an employee – annual performance reviews.

Ugh. Everyone hates them. It is always something people “gear up for” as if they were headed into battle. And it is with that mindset that often sets the stage for conflict in a most unnatural and aggravating resolution-proof way. And what is the purpose of them? Depending on who you ask, you can get different answers. If you ask the employee, it’s to figure out how all their effort over the past year will be rationalized away into a sub-cost of living “performance” increase in their salary. If you ask the manager it is to help the employee develop and see areas for growth. If you ask HR it is to provide legal documentation of performance problems and “fairly” distribute the company-wide 2.6% payroll increase.  If you ask senior leadership, they may stare at you blankly and say “HR made me do it”. For most companies, it is considered a necessary evil.

Necessary evil? The CIA is a necessary evil, Guantanamo Bay was a necessary evil, Satan is a necessary evil. Annual performance reviews are just evil and there is nothing necessary about them.  I worked in an organization that was proof of that – I worked there for 4 years and NEVER saw a performance review, either one I needed to fill out, or one I had to receive.  And you know what? Everyone on that team was awesome and did awesome work. How did we distribute raises – we all got the same percentage raise. And it was not called a “merit” or “performance” increase, it was called exactly what it was – a salary adjustment.  And no one was unhappy about it or argued or plead for more – it was fair.

So why are they so ubiquitous? Because they are easy and there is no real accountability. Sure they take a long time, but the feedback is reduced to numbers or some other likert-scale rating of “meets expectations” And ultimately, they are a “review” a look backwards that does nothing to develop behaviors or talent to better performance.

Doing it differently

People are intrinsically motivated to get better, to be better at something. (Pink, 2011) We desire improvement and mastery. And it that single piece of research proven data that can shift how you improve performance. People want to do a good job, they want to meet expectations. Providing them with your expectations AFTER the year has wrapped up (the essence of an annual performance review) isn’t helping anyone. And letting them know they have not met them for a year is frustrating at best.

Set the expectations early

This is the key. And being clear about your expectations is tough, especially when it comes to making it behavioral. Giving people a list of qualities and traits that you expect puts a great deal of reliance on the assumption they share the same meaning of those words – and this is typically where things fall down. I’ve worked with hundreds of groups in different trainings to come up with a common meaning for “team player” and “passionate” and do you know how many times I have gotten exact matches across groups or classes? Zero. Everyone has their own small spin or one more things that they include in their definition.  The same goes for “hard worker”, “quality”, “attention to detail”, “organized”, and so on. The good thing about doing these exercises with groups is the lists are not that far off, there is typically about an 80% match. All you have to do it clarify the other 20%.

So setting behavioral expectations is not like talking with a 5-year-old about cleaning his/her room. Start by asking your employee (or manager for that matter) what “organized” looks like to them, then work off their meaning to add the 20% that you also expect. This activity may seem a little pedantic, but then again, so are performance reviews. And the likelihood of better performance is much greater once people know what you are looking for.

Don’t ignore the small misses

I’m not talking about mistakes, I am talking about the small departures from your expectations – where people “kind of” got the outcome you re looking for. Catching mistakes is about watching what people DO, I’m talking about what people PRODUCE. The outcome of their activity, the result. Mistakes happen, we all mess up, it is how we recover from those mistakes (or fail to) that matters. And where it matters is in the outcome. For instance, if you give me a task of tying a certain type of knot and you tell me I have 20 minutes to produce the end product, and after 20 minutes I have tied the knot successfully, does it matter how many times I tried and failed? Results matter.

That is why it is important to give feedback when the result is slightly off from your expectation. The judgement of the result is how we know whether or not we are doing well. THIS is the time for feedback, and not about their activity (please see above), about the result. What are you looking for that you did not see? Was this an error in your communication when you set expectations? If you did not set expectations, then take accountability for never telling them what you wanted – that is YOUR fault, not theirs. Start over in that case. If you had set expectations, maybe there were a couple of points you did not realize you were looking for until you saw the final product – again, YOUR fault, not theirs. Feedback is an opportunity to clarify expectations, not just point out mistakes.

And people want feedback. If you were doing something in your job that was holding your success back, would you want someone to tell you? Of course you would. Everyone wants feedback. It is HOW we manifest our desire to get better. If we do not know what we are doing well, we won’t continue it – if we do not know what we need to improve, we cannot change it. Change starts with awareness.

Done and Done.

That’s really it. Set expectations and give feedback. If you do those two things, performance reviews become superfluous. And what is more, if you write what you plan to discuss before hand, you now have documentation. Which is really all a performance review is, documentation that at some point in the year you gave feedback about someone’s performance. It is a way to force feedback into the system, that’s it. Regardless of how your company justifies it, performance reviews start for that reason alone – to provide documentation that feedback has been given. If you are giving feedback and documenting along the way, filling out a performance review just becomes paperwork…and hopefully, paperwork that goes away.

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