My boss once told me that he has never seen a performance review system that he really liked. While it almost seems like blasphemy for an HR guy to admit this, I have been uncomfortable with the way corporations evaluate performance throughout my career in Human Resources. I have written and helped implement several approaches to performance evaluation over the years. Each approach was a variation on a common theme that is widely accepted among corporations.
Here’s how it generally goes. The “performance year” starts with some kind of discussion about the goals to be achieved during the year. These individual goals are supposed to be tied in to departmental and organizational goals – aligned with the organization. Through the course of the year managers are supposed to provide feedback to employees on their progress and modify the direction as the year progresses and organizational direction shifts. Sometimes companies implement a more formal performance discussion mid-way through the year. At the end of the performance year the managers start pulling together information and evidence of how well the employees have achieved the goals. Managers apply a rating and create development plans for next year and they begin the cycle again.While all this looks good on paper and sounds good in theory, in practice it produces mixed results. Here are some reasons to rethink how we do performance reviews.
- The interest, skill, and ability of managers to do performance reviews seriously and sincerely varies widely. Some managers take their responsibility seriously, but lack the skills to execute the process effectively. Some managers see the process as an HR mandated chore to get done so HR will get off their backs. Some managers are known among employees to be “tougher graders” than others. Companies spend millions to train managers in all of these areas with mixed results.
- Some job results are more easily measured than others. For example sales jobs either achieve the established sales quotas or they don’t. Manufacturing jobs either hit the volume or quality targets or they don’t. Other “thought” or “creative” jobs can be more difficult to quantify and measure.
- Given the propensity of people and managers to notice the negative, I have noticed that most performance reviews focus on “things to improve” rather than on a more balanced overview of contribution and performance.
- Many companies see the performance review process as a way to document performance and capture the data so that if things sour; they will have some foundation documentation for discipline or termination.
Because of the reasons outlined above, many solid, successful, and happy employees come out of their reviews discouraged, disillusioned, and even disgusted. Is this what we want a performance review process to do? There has to be a better way.
I think positive psychology holds at least some of the keys to turn this well intended process from something to dread with negative results to an opportunity to help employees find more fulfillment and meaning in their work.
Consider the following “What Ifs:”
- What if the annual discussion focused solely on strengths? This doesn’t mean that we ignore poor performance or look the other way when inappropriate behavior occurs. This does mean that we identify and recognize the strengths of the employee and look for ways to leverage those strengths to compensate for any areas of weakness.
- What if the performance review form focused on recognizing the employee for accomplishments – and nothing else? Why not make the annual documentation of contribution and performance all about the good things? There is plenty of opportunity throughout the year to document performance issues and concerns. Focusing on the positive may be just the thing to turn poorer performance around and restore hope.
- What if companies spent as much money on training managers to identify and leverage strengths as they spend on training managers to identify and manage deteriorating performance? I think strengths training would have a much bigger and longer-term impact on the organization.
- What if employees and managers actually looked forward to the performance review time? What if they saw it as a time to celebrate successes and accomplishments rather than a time to document lapses and missteps?
I know that HR people and employment lawyers are groaning or fidgeting uncomfortably right now, but how much is really at risk by taking this alternative path? I don’t think we lose any ability to deal with poor performers in an ethical and legal way. I don’t think we expose ourselves to increased legal risks as long as we are consistent across our employee base and we are evenhanded.
Finally, I think the potential benefits of at least considering a more positive approach will help keep our top performers motivated and satisfied while poorer performers will not be destroyed and devastated should tough decisions be necessary.
As we help our employees identify and leverage their strengths, they will begin to see their contributions to the company as fulfilling their calling rather than filling time in a job. In this strengths-driven environment I believe employee engagement and retention will rise while employee relations cases and issues will fall.
Gerson, R. F. & Gerson, R. G. (2006). Positive Performance Improvement: A New Paradigm for Optimizing Your Workforce. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
One-on-one meeting courtesy of Michael Coghlin