Dump the Performance Review!

Or just change it?

The Wall Street Journal recently posted an interesting article about the sad state of performance reviews. The article’s pretty good, and rather than summarizing for you, just go read it.

I’ll wait….



Good stuff, right? OK, so the thing that struck me about this is that the performance review described sounds like another case of bad management. We all know that the top reason people voluntarily leave their jobs is bad management. Bad management can express itself in a variety of ways: the infamous “one person screwed up/took advantage of the organization so let me send out a cranky email to everyone setting up a Draconian new policy,” the capricious boss who takes out bad moods on staff, the micro-manager, the boss who never, ever backs staff members in confrontations with volunteers or members, the boss who plays favorites, the boss who doesn’t give enough direction or support, the boss who only knows how to give negative feedback, the narcissist, the boss who’s terrified of making a bad decision and so makes none, the boss who’s totally impulsive, etc. It seems like we can add the boss who uses performance reviews as an opportunity to bludgeon staff to that list.

I like the idea (if not the name “performance preview”) Samuel Culbert proposes as a solution. Look, if someone has a behavior, attitude, or productivity problem, you don’t wait until review time to address it. You address it right away! And if performance isn’t a determinant of pay in your organization (i.e., everyone’s getting a standard 3.7% raise or whatever), don’t pretend like it is.

Why do reviews have to be like this? What if they were viewed, first and foremost, as an opportunity to formally recognize all the good work each staff member has done in the past year and thank them for it (not that you don’t want to thank them along the way, but what if this were the time to pile up the loot, so to speak, and acknowledge it)?

What if reviews were used as a time to look back at the goals each person set for the year and assess what happened? Which ones were met? Exceeded? Which ones weren’t met, and why? (Many times, there are very good reasons why goals weren’t met – they were discovered partway through the year to be no longer relevant, other more pressing things that weren’t anticipated came to the fore, some critical prerequisite wasn’t met, they weren’t realistic in the first place, they just got delayed/deferred, etc.)

What if, in talking about any behavior/attitude/productivity issues that need addressing, the focus was on coming up with a plan to address them together (staff person, manager, team, organization)?

What if staffers had a chance to tell managers what they need from the managers or from the organization to be successful? What if staffers had a chance to, without fear of repurcussions, offer positive and negative feedback about their managers? To their faces?

What if reviews focused on setting goals for the coming year, and what each player (staff, manager, team and organization) needs to do to make them happen?

What if salary was a minor part of the discussion? What if some of the rewards offered were non-monetary?

In other words, unlike the truly nightmare scenario Culbert describes, what if reviews were a positive, open, friendly, useful process, in which BOTH sides got to give and receive positive and negative feedback, and the focus was on working together to set and achieve good goals and address any obstacles that might get in the way?

So if your organization were to throw out how you review people and start from scratch, what would that look like? What really constitutes effective feedback at work, both positive and negative? What would your ideal performance assessment system be? How can people best be rewarded, particularly in a time when an economic downturn might allow for fewer financial rewards than the norm?

2 thoughts on “Dump the Performance Review!”

  • Thanks for leading me to the article. Annual reviews on a specific form are required in my workplace (public higher ed), but that shouldn’t stop us from doing things better.

    He didn’t address another underlying problem: it’s an ANNUAL review. Should you really only be discussing performance and improvement once a year? Wow, that’s 364 days of NOT thinking about how things are going.

    A former colleague introduced me to the difference between “formative” and “summative” reviews. In a formative review, you’re working together as you go along, tweaking and trying things out–sort of “where are we going? how are we getting there? what will we change?”. In a summative review, you’re looking back: “where were we? what happened?”
    While the latter is useful in order to benefit from the perspective of time, it doesn’t lead to ongoing change.

    Kind of like flossing–you have to do it 21 times to make it a habit. Flossing once a year won’t improve your trips to the dentist’s chair.
    (For women: See ANNarchy on dentist visits vs. another type of medical visit: http://www.annhandley.com/2008/10/30/relax-and-open-wide-dentist-vs-doctor/)


  • @BiketoWork Barb (great screen name, by the way): I think the formative v. summative difference is really what Culbert was after, and the formative ones are in fact more useful. Sure there’s something to be learned from debriefing, but working with your staff is far more effective when it’s focused on how do we work together to get where we want to go?

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