Dare To Disrupt Your Performance Review Process

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The annual performance review:  it’s probably the most dreaded activity in the workplace, one that has long been satirized in television sitcoms such as The Office, in our favorite Dilbert cartoons and in YouTube videos.  It’s also one of the very few practices that has been languishing for decades without meaningful change, even as industries and technologies have evolved significantly. Today’s organizations are failing to involve and focus their workforces on future facing activities, continuing instead to use a rear-view mirror approach to leading performance.

I wondered, recently, what brought about the rise of the traditional performance review as the integral component of organizational life we all know it to be today?

My initial thought was that someone such as Elton Mayo — the famous psychologist whose groundbreaking organizational research provided data that drove widespread change in management theory in the early 1900s — might have had a hand in introducing performance reviews as a motivational management practice.

Imagine my surprise to learn it was the U.S. government — yes, our government — who got the ball rolling in 1950 by passing The Performance Rating Act, which required annual reviews for federal employees.  The law established three rating levels:  Outstanding, Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory. 

Soon after, in 1954, The Incentive Awards Act authorized recognition and cash for outstanding accomplishments, inventions and other special performance by government workers.  And, in 1962, The Salary Reform Act introduced the practice known today as “pay for performance”, a compensation philosophy commonly believed to have originated in the H.R. department.

In the 1960s-1980s Peter Drucker’s Management by Objectives (MBO) became popularized as a best practice and performance against objectives became  a key element in performance evaluation.  Eventually, though, surveys began to surface dissatisfaction among employees and managers with the review process:

  • 1997: The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found a mere 5% of companies rated themselves “very satisfied” with the review process
  • 2009: Reuters determined 4 out of 5 U.S. employees were dissatisfied with performance reviews

In the past 5+ years, arguments to eliminate the performance review have gained momentum, pushing the subject to the forefront of many of our discussions. UCLA Professor and management guru Sam Culbert was an early champion of change, with other experts such as Dr. Tim Baker more recently entering the fray; their books and articles outline the pitfalls of performance reviews and recommend alternatives to traditional reviews.

Experience and research have shown us that some of the foundational components of the performance review processes we use today are flawed. Following are the top three deficiencies in today’s practices:

  1. Obtaining performance feedback on an employee from other people including co-workers, peers and managers is generally unreliable. The feedback they provide tells us more about them than about the employee who is the subject. People have different goals, perspectives, agendas, and political alliances, as well as personal needs and biases, that make their feedback subjective and incomplete and, therefore, inaccurate.
  2. Managers collecting the feedback often have their own opinions about the employee and tend to hear and consider primarily the feedback that agrees with their own, viewing it as corroboration of their perceptions.  This is human nature.
  3. Employees need to receive corrective or improvement-oriented feedback and to be given enough time to make associated changes. Managers need to communicate often enough to be aware of performance problems as well as to provide the feedback and information the employee needs to correct such problems. Timely communication and feedback are areas needing improvement in most organizations and this impacts trust as well as performance.

A recent survey by Reflektive concluded that employee engagement and retention are higher when employees like the performance review process; in fact, the survey found that employees who like their organization’s review process are:

  • 3X more likely to recommend their company as a great place to work
  • 2.4X more likely to work at their company two years from now
  • Likely to work harder than they did in their prior organizations

It’s time for a dramatic disruption in the performance review process that’s been entrenched in most organizations for years.  The good news is that moving to an employee-centric review process is already under way in some well-known, successful corners:

  • Zappos has refocused their performance review away from the traditional results-based structure to one that assesses cultural contributions based on the company’s ten core values.
  • Adobe has abolished their  long-standing annual review process, replacing it  with Check-ins including expectation setting, feedback, and  a written quarterly recap of employee strengths and opportunities for development.
  • Deloitte is eliminating cascading goals, 360s and annual reviews.  Their new performance management process is  being designed to Recognize, See and Fuel performance.  The new process will have three interlocking rituals to support them:  the annual compensation decision, the quarterly or per-project performance snapshot, and the weekly check-in.  Deloitte is shifting from focusing discussions on the past to driving a continuous focus on the future, through regular evaluations and frequent check-ins.

Now is a good time to ask yourself these critical questions: 

  1. Is your company’s performance review process effectively driving employee engagement and performance?
  2. Is it designed to avoid pitfalls inherent in traditional performance review processes such as those listed above?
  3. Does it yield valid performance information and data that can be relied on for succession planning, workforce planning, employee development, and retention initiatives?
  4. Is your performance review process effectively driving daily, weekly, and monthly communication that supports employees in making a future-oriented improvement and contribution?
  5. Do your people like your company’s performance review process?

Will the same performance processes used by Zappos, Adobe or Deloitte be right for your business?  Maybe not.  Your performance review process needs to be tailored to fit  your company’s unique business strategy, desired culture, and organizational needs.

Now, as the recovery from the pandemic picks up speed, why not re-design your performance review process to maximize its potential as a tool to attract, retain, and enable high performers?

Will your organization join the ranks of the companies above by daring to make a disruption, to reap the benefits of not only updating, but moving to a new way of managing performance?  Are you ready to lead the way for your organization?  What challenges will you need to overcome? Please share your thoughts.

Sources/Recommended Reading:

Copyright 2022 by Rosanna M. Nadeau

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