Ditch Performance Reviews? How About Learn to do Them Well?

Easter is over so in my company that means it’s time for the bi-annual Performance Review. In April we plan, in September we review and then the following April we review the full year and plan again. Is that Ground Hog Day or an effective and motivating review cycle?

Some management leaders promote an end to the annual performance review process labelling them subjective and one-sided, instead encouraging managers and supervisors to keep up a continuous dialogue of encouragement and feedback with employees. I agree that ongoing communication is essential but I am reluctant to ditch the annual performance review. It is a key opportunity for an open dialogue and if conducted effectively can genuinely elicit improved performance on both sides. An article by Maxim Sytch and D.Scott DeRue sums it up – Ditch Performance Reviews? How About Learn to do Them Well?

Sytch and DeRue offer the following thoughts which I have quoted in full –

To learn to conduct performance reviews well, you need to know the key reasons they are so challenging, frustrating, and yes, generally disliked. Then you need the tools — specific suggestions for both appraisers and appraisees — to overcome these challenges and conduct an effective review. Based on decades of scientific research and our own field research on the role of feedback in leadership development, we’ve identified the following key challenges and solutions to the performance review dilemma.

The three challenges:

1. Cognitive bias. A central cognitive bias is the fundamental attribution error, wherein we attribute success to our own traits and abilities, and blame failures on external circumstances. Thus, you may think, "I led project A to successful completion by being entrepreneurial in finding the required inputs, but project B failed because we lacked an executive champion and enough resources." This attribution, however, reverses when we think of others.

2. Sugarcoating the negative. We all want to be liked, and delivering negative information straight-on runs counter to this desire. Such sugarcoating, however, distorts the very nature of feedback, making it difficult for appraisees to properly adjust their behavior. Appraisers can also fall prey to the illusion of transparency when they believe that their thoughts and assessments are absolutely clear to the appraisee, while in reality they are not. Appraisees, in turn, risk the overconfidence bias. In other words, we generally think we are better than we really are.

3. Lack of preparation. For an effective performance review, both should have a full record of the employee’s activities. If you lack those records, research shows you will base your evaluations on the most recent or salient events, which are more readily retrievable from memory. The odds of such an evaluation being comprehensive and unbiased are quite low.

So those are the biggest and most-consistent challenges to performance reviews. So how can you do them well? We’ve identified four key things to remember.

1. Create an open, two-way dialogue. This responsibility lies with both the appraiser and the appraisee. As an appraiser, you can open the review by asking, "So, Lisa, how do you think you are doing?" In a manager-subordinate appraisal, giving the subordinate the initiative at the outset could be important in leveling the playing field and ensuring an open communication process. It is Lisa’s responsibility, however, to come prepared to engage in such discussion. She should have a summary of the projects, tasks, and initiatives in which she was involved and be prepared to discuss her performance. Remember that performance reviews are not just the times when you mindlessly endure others’ evaluating you. It is foremost an opportunity for you to reflect on both performance and potential and emerge a better employee. As a manager, you can help Lisa better prepare for this discussion by asking her to fill out some variant of a performance self-assessment form.

2. Reduce the subjectivity. Many reviews entail some degree of subjective evaluation, but eliminating the subjectivity where possible is key. Some helpful practices here could include direct peer-to-peer comparisons. For example, ask yourself, "How would Lisa compare to Mary?" You can also think of ranking your employees or forcing a distribution. Do not procrastinate on making such assessments and ensure you are rating a manageable number of appraisees. Rushing the process or rating too many people is guaranteed to distort your judgment. Another way to mitigate the downsides of subjective assessment is to consider multiple perspectives. Today, many companies are effectively using 360 evaluations, in which subordinates, peers, and managers all contribute feedback.

Also, use concrete events or behaviors to support your evaluations. A general comment such as "I think you could be putting in more hours" is neither well supported nor impactful. A statement such as "I would have liked to see you around on the two weekends in April when we were finalizing the partnership contract for client A," however, is both clear and substantiated. To do this during a review, many effective managers keep a folder (paper or electronic) where they file performance-related information for each employee throughout the year.

3. Give constant feedback. Don’t wait for the official performance review period to give or receive performance feedback. In many companies, official reviews happen only once or twice a year. If the employee is not doing well, he or she should not have to wait half a year to find out. Catching undesirable behaviors earlier allows you to correct them more easily. Likewise, encouraging good performance quickly can provide an additional motivational boost.

4. Balance evaluation and development. It’s well known that as humans, we have a hard time accepting criticisms, even if they are constructive. As people get emotional and upset, it becomes incredibly difficult to engage them in creating a developmental plan. A useful practice here is separate the review and developmental sessions over time. So, when opening a review meeting, set the ground rules by noting that today you will discuss performance and next week you will meet for a developmental follow up. This will give the employee time to digest the feedback and think of the ways to use your help down the road.

To see the full article go to – http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/06/ditch_performance_reviews_how.html


  1. Agree — do them right. Here’s why. They ain’t goin away. Period. People have been pointing out the flaws for a good 25 years. Companies aren’t giving them up. I have been working hard to communicate that it’s not HARD to integrate reviews into performance management systems and that the benefits to doing this are HUGE, in terms of employee engagement, productivity, save managerial time…etc.

    Recent article on modernizing appraisals: 10 Ways To Modernize Performance Management and Appraisal For 2013 – See more at: http://performance-appraisals.org/Bacalsappraisalarticles/articles/tenways.htm

    And a first video in a series on that same topic: http://performance-appraisals.org/myvids/updatingpart1.htm

  2. […] Ditch Performance Reviews? How About Learn to do Them Well? […]

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