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Performance Reviews are Not Collaborative Conversations

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

[Excerpt from my just-released book, The Feedback Imperative: How to Give Everyday Feedback to Speed Up Your Team’s Success]

The main purpose of a performance review is to document a legally defensible basis for pay and promotion decisions. Toward that goal, every manager is deputized into serving as a legal arm of the company. Certainly, meeting with a “deputy” is not the best way to build rapport and encourage employees to open up to learning and being coached.

Set-up for opposition 

For true learning to occur and for feedback cycles to get moving, the manager and employee must be on the same side of the table. But, in a performance review, the employee is definitely placed on the opposite side of the table from you, the supervisor. In such an environment, your direct report is not at all comfortable showing vulnerability and asking for help. As Samuel Culbert, a performance-review contrarian wrote in his Wall Street Journal article entitled “Get Rid of the Performance Review!” adversarial roles are set up in performance-evaluation meetings:

You would think that the person in the best position to help somebody improve would be his or her boss. Yet thanks to the performance review, the boss is often the last person an employee would turn to. People don’t want to pay a high price for acknowledging their need for improvement, which is exactly what they would do if they arm the boss with the kind of personal information he or she would need to help them develop.

What a disconnect! In all the current data about what drives engagement, we hear employees clamoring for a closer, more trusting relationship with their boss, and the standard performance-review process pushes employees and managers further away from trust.

Performance review is the ball and chain you drag behind you

To promote a beneficial feedback environment in your group, you need to recognize your employees’ fears, which have developed over years of experience with unpleasant performance reviews. Although the association employees make between feedback and performance review was probably formed before they met you, it will color everything they imagine about any kind of feedback. As you tell them about your plans to implement a new everyday-feedback program, you will want to factor in their past associations with performance review and acknowledge them directly.

Performance reviews are exhausting for managers

These unpleasant associations between feedback and performance review may be even worse for managers than for employees. Pressures to rate and rank people, allocate scarce funding for salary increases, and complete laborious paperwork can wear down your energy and enthusiasm. Attracting and retaining great talent is hard enough without being asked to intentionally demoralize people.

You may find that performance review is an overly formal and rigid way to offer feedback. Daniel Pink, in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, dubbed performance reviews as a “form of kabuki theatre—highly stylized rituals in which people recite predictable lines in a formulaic way.” You may be so worn down after an uncomfortable performance review that you never want to hear the word “feedback” again. What’s so fascinating is that the very reasons performance reviews are draining can be prevented before next year’s reviews—if you begin to have frequent, fun, and motivating feedback conversations.

I won’t blame you if you can’t quite see it yet. Adopting the everyday-feedback philosophy may not be on your radar screen as you struggle to complete your time-consuming performance reviews. Performance reviews may represent such a dark cloud for you that the bright sunshine remains hidden.

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