Home All Thoughts on Performance Reviews and Positive Psychology

Thoughts on Performance Reviews and Positive Psychology

written by Doug Turner 16 July 2007

Douglas B. Turner, MAPP '06, is Corporate Vice President, Talent Management, for Balfour Beatty Construction,overseeing human resources, including leadership, management, employee training and development, team development, employee recruitment and retention, employee relations, and compliance. Full bio.

Doug's articles are here.

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.

Useful Resource

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

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Kathryn Britton 16 July 2007 - 11:53 am


What if we challenged each manager to have each person walk out of his/her office after the performance review with more energy than he/she walked in with?

My experience with performance reviews lines up with what you describe. When I first started working, the manager would write up a short description of accomplishments and development goals. For the last few years, even the job of writing has been left up to the employee. Because ratings occur in a political process behind the scenes — managers getting together and jockeying for high and low ratings, employees often feel that what they write is largely ignored, so it is a real chore to pull it together. A colleague and I played a game the last few years of having precisely the maximum number of characters in our performance results write-ups — no more, no less — because it gave a little interest to the process.

What if the process of performance appraisals were along the lines of the 6 step process that Marcus Buckingham describes in Go Put Your Strengths to Work — observing and collecting data about what you do best and what weakens you and then tailoring the job so that you do more of the former and less of the latter? In one step, Buckingham has one observe for a week whenever he/she feels energized and successful, writing on index cards specifically what he/she was doing and what was going on. In another step, he/she observes for a week what activities make him/her feel bored, listless, unsuccessful, also writing specific descriptions on cards. Then there’s a great card sort to see patterns.

What if performance appraisals involved both the manager and the employee discussing data collected like this in order to enhance the employee’s ability to contribute in the coming year.

That’s just another way of saying what you already said. Great piece & I’m happy to hear an HR person thinking like this.


Senia 16 July 2007 - 1:53 pm


I especially like your question and Kathryn’s follow-up… what if employees looked forward to performance review time?

I know a woman who just had a performance review in which her boss’ first question was “How happy are you at work?” And she answered by saying all the things that were working, and then commented on the ones that weren’t working. That’s very employee-centered. Very committed to the employee’s learning and growth. That’s laudable!

“What if”s seem like a really nice place to start – we can imagine them. We can see what these “what if”s could bring in practice. Thanks, Doug.


Mimi 16 July 2007 - 5:05 pm


This is great!…in briefly speaking with Prof Gretchen Spreitzer from U Mich Positive Organizational Scholarship program she mentioned that perhaps the Reflected Best Self exercise http://www.bus.umich.edu/Positive/POS-Teaching-and-Learning/POS-Tools.htm might be the appropriate solution to the performance review problem that you’re discussing. Sounds like a great idea to me, do you think that with some personalization to your corporations that might be a feasible idea?

Theresa Smith 16 July 2007 - 6:44 pm


I’m a new subscriber to Positive Psychology news and so this is the first article of yours that I’ve read. All I can say is YES! RIGHT ON!

I spent many years as the management/OD consultant who trained managers in how to deal with the negatives until I got the message and began to use just what you’ve described. It was not well received by my senior management but I pursued it and finally got some managers to reframe their thinking.

I’m out of the corporate world now, a business and life coach who always deals with my clients’ strengths.

Thank you for a wonderful article.

Theresa Smith

Lola Rokni 17 July 2007 - 9:25 am

Great discussion and thought teaser!
Some structural What ifs:
What if we could disconnect the “rating” and “performance review” from the “plans for the future”? rating, relative to others and the past is a totally different thing than energizing a person, which should be relative to herself and future oriented. Connecting the two different frames creates an ambiguity, which makes these performance reviews ineffective: you cannot energize and rate simultaneously.
What if a manager’s “rating” was partly defined by her subordinates as to how energizing she is to them? Than managers understand that their ‘job’ is to energize and not just rate.


Doug Turner 17 July 2007 - 9:38 am

Thanks to all for your thoughts and comments. Anyone who has ever worked in a corporate setting and experienced a performance review can relate to the thoughts you are sharing. What we are talking about here is very “counter cultural” in corporate America – but so needed. Keep thinking and sharing your “what if’s.” I found a nice book on related to this subject: “Positive Performance Improvement, A New Paradigm for Optimizing Your Workforce” by Richard F. and Robbie G. Gerson. They discuss Positive Psychology and reference Dr. Seligman.
All the Best, Doug

Laurie 17 July 2007 - 11:38 am

Doug, This is an excellent article and a concept that needs to be shared beyond the realm of positive psychology professionals. It needs to be communicated to the corporat world. It could make a tremendous difference in a company’s morale and create a work environment where people thrive rather than just survive! Good insights.

John Yeager 17 July 2007 - 2:18 pm

Doug: Your article was inspiring, as I am very interested in addressing a new way of looking at performance reviews with the faculty and administration at my school.

Thanks for the motivation.

John Y.

Al Gammate 3 October 2008 - 4:28 am

Hi Doug:

Great article! You hit the nail right on the head!

I worked for a company where my supervisor gave me regular performance evaluations. Apparently, this company trained its supervisors to discuss only the employees’ weak points or areas of needed improvement.

I must admit that after getting my performance evaluated, my motivation quickly dissipated! I found these evaluations to be motivation killers.

To increase employee motivation, I believe that managers and supervisors should be trained to focus on the employees’ strong points or areas of excellence.

If managers and supervisors did this, could you imagine the overall employee production level? Could you imagine how motivated the employees would be? Or how low employee turnover would be?


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