I guess I understand why they are so insistent on performance reviews. Without them, many managers wouldn't take the time to sit down one-on-one with their reports. A 'review' might only take place when the manager is preparing to terminate the employee and needs to document his/her inadequate performance. Without the structure of the formal review process, a performance review, even with the best employees, degenerates into a brief conversation where each party knows they'd rather be doing something else.
But even with the process and the regularly scheduled reviews, the experience is at the very least, uncomfortable and all too often, unproductive. What is it we really want the performance review to accomplish? I suspect that most people would agree to the following goals:
- Give the manager a chance to provide feedback on the employee's work,
recognizing accomplishments and identifying areas that need improvement.
- Give the employee the opportunity to provide feedback to management on the job, the company, the work environment, the manager, and their career/developmental goals.
- Agree on new goals and what is needed to achieve them.
- Provide motivation for the employee to perform at his/her highest level.
Thirty years later, a 'big company' which had acquired one of mine, had another completely different review process. Each quarter, the employee was expected to lay out goals for the coming quarter. The manager then approved the goals or made modifications. This was done via a browser-based tool, no actual face-to-face communication took place. Theoretically, during the quarter, the goals could be updated by either party. At the end of the quarter, the employee rated him/herself and submitted the ratings to the manager. The manager could approve or change the ratings and the performance review process was done. Well almost. HR required a follow up conversation about the review. Raises were determined based on the ratings that managers and employees agreed to.
While the idea of setting goals quarterly, reviewing them regularly, and doing quarterly employee reviews seemed like a good one, in practice, overburdened managers took cursory looks at goals and signed off. Busy employees often just copied goals from one quarter to the next and submitted them. Self-evaluations were haphazard and any changes by the managers were usually driven by budget - you needed to adjust ratings so that raises would fit within your budget. Of course, then HR would step in. If you had too many highly rated employees, they made you adjust some of them downward or sometimes they or your own manager would make rating adjustments without consulting you. HR had standards that dictated how many Outstanding, Excellent, Average, and Below Average employees existed in any group. It didn't matter if your group had the best performers in the company.
Clearly the process was flawed. And as I reflect on all the Performance Review processes I've seen in my long career, I think it's the nature of the beast. Classic Performance Reviews need to go (away).
So what do we do instead?
If we review the four key objectives for performance reviews above, doesn't it seem like they should just result from good management?
As a manager, your job is to help your reports do their jobs better. You're a facilitator. This means agreeing on goals, checking in on progress, bringing resources to help if there are problems, adapting goals as necessary, and doing post-mortems to identify the good and the bad aspects of any project/task.
Setting the initial goals should be done in person, or, for a telecommuter, via a video call. Make the time. Depending on the tasks and goals, checking in on progress should be done at least weekly. Ideally this is done one-on-one, but depending on the project/size of the team, a group meeting isn't necessarily a bad way to check on progress. Often another team member has time or experience that can help out when problems arise. Employees should be encouraged to ask about changes to goals and their priorities (which may change frequently during the course of a project, particularly if the employee has multiple responsibilities, like doing both development and customer support).
Again, depending on the nature of the tasks/goals and the team, post mortems can be done individually or as a group.
There is one aspect of those formal reviews that rarely went well but which you need to incorporate into your non-review paradigm: You need to regularly talk to your employees about their career and development goals and how their job, the company's direction, and your efforts are helping (or hindering) them to achieve them.
Have a one-on-one meeting over lunch, coffee, or, if you're so inclined, join them in a recreational activity. Make it clear you're listening, even if you can't give them everything they want. Acknowledging their needs and desires, and showing a path to realizing them is critical to keeping your team members motivated.
Okay, the truth is, this approach hasn't really eliminated reviews. Instead, we've just made them continuous by incorporating them into our daily management.
But good management is what it's all about and all too often, the formal review process just impedes our ability to connect with our employees and to be the facilitators they need.