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Performance Reviews that Energize

written by Margaret Greenberg and Senia Maymin 14 December 2009

Margaret Greenberg and Senia Maymin are the authors of the book Profit From the Positive. Articles written jointly by Margaret and Senia are here.

Margaret Greenberg, MAPP '06, founded The Greenberg Group, an organizational effectiveness consulting practice, in 1997. Margaret specializes in coaching executives and their teams using a strengths-based approach. Full bio. Her solo articles are here.

Senia Maymin, MAPP '06 is an executive coach to entrepreneurs and CEOs. Her PhD is in organizational behavior from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Full bio. Her solo articles are here, and her articles with Kathryn Britton are here.

It’s that time of year again, and we’re not talking about the holidays. It’s the time of year when most employees have their annual performance review. If you manage employees and are responsible for conducting their annual review, then here are specific tips to de-stress the process while energizing your team.

The Old System

Tense Meeting

Tense Meeting

In most companies, performance reviews follow a similar format (see Doug Turner’s article Performance Reviews and Positive Psychology). Against a set of pre-defined goals or objectives, both the employee being evaluated and his manager identify what he did well, point out what he needs to improve upon, and then create a development plan that will close the gaps. This Performance Management & Development “system” is built on the flawed assumption that to perform a job well we need employees who can perform all aspects of the job equally well. Cross-training everybody in everything was the battle cry at the beginning of this millennium. But that’s just not realistic, nor does it play to what energizes people and makes them more satisfied in their work.

Why Most Performance Reviews are Anything But Energizing

Business meeting

Energizing Review

Not everyone can be a top performer. Some organizations continue to require managers to fit employees into a bell curve when it comes to evaluating their performance. (Typically, only 5-10% are marked the highest ranking of “excellent,” 35-40% are marked “strong,” 35-40% are assigned “solid,” and 5-10% receive “needs improvement.”) Even if a manager believes one of her employees deserves a higher ranking, she is forced to lower rankings to fit into the bell curve. Imagine you’re an employee who has worked hard all year long only to find out during your performance discussion that you can’t be given the highest rating because you are one of the many that needs to fit the curve. How energized do you think you would be?

“The bell curve system really represented a glass half-full mentality. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The people who got the “excellent” and “strong” ratings got a lot of grooming, positive feedback, and plum assignments. Today, … our managers focus on what [every] person has accomplished, what’s going well, and what can be leveraged going forward. ….”  
~ VP Human Resources, Insurance

It’s a chore. Another reason performance discussion aren’t particularly energizing is because managers view the Performance Review process as something they must “get through” to satisfy Human Resources. Some managers don’t see the connection between investing time with employees to discuss performance and development plans and what this can do to increase productivity and engagement. From the employee’s perspective, he may view the process as a chore, too, if in the past he worked for a manager who truly didn’t care about his development and told him to “just complete this form and I’ll sign it.”

Bad timing. In many companies, performance reviews, compensation, and development discussions occur in December. Tight, year-end deadlines (not to mention holidayitis), leave little time for quality discussions to occur. What happens instead is the conversation between the manager and employee becomes forced, inconvenient, and rushed.

It was such an awful experience. Other employees recall performance discussions whereby their manager spent the first few minutes talking about what they did well, but focused the rest of the meeting on what they didn’t do well. Rather than feeling pumped up to do an even better job, employees feel deflated and de-motivated. We’ve also had managers tell us that although they had a lot more positive performance feedback than negative, the employee obsessed over the couple of negatives or “needs improvement” areas. In positive psychology, we call this “negativity bias.” Many of us, managers and employees alike, discount or de-emphasize the good things and overly focus on the bad.

What Should a Manager Do?

Performance Review Ponderings

Performance Review Ponderings

There are three things you can do to make performance reviews more energizing for both your employees and yourself:

  1. Reframe how you view them.
    Think of performance reviews as a time to reinvigorate your employees. View them as an investment, not a chore.
  2. Focus on strengths, but don’t ignore weaknesses.
    Clearly a manager’s role is to help employees improve performance and continue to grow and develop in their jobs. But it’s also the manager’s role to recognize what employees are good at and how they can use their strengths even more.
  3. Set challenging and specific goals.
    When we set difficult goals our maximum effort kicks in. In business we often call these “stretch” goals. “Challenging goals facilitate pride in accomplishment,” says goals researcher Gary Latham. In study after study of occupations ranging from loggers to engineers with similar abilities, setting challenging goals explains why some people perform better than others.

Like teachers, managers have more influence than perhaps they realize over how well their employees perform. Turn this year’s performance reviews into an energy-producing experience.



For more on “negativity bias,” see Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

For more on goals, see
Latham, G. (2006). Work Motivation: History, Theory, Research, and Practice (Foundations for Organizational Science). Sage Publications.

For more ideas on workplace motivation, see our book. This article covers one of the ideas we developed there.

Greenberg, M. & Maymin, S. (2013). Profit from the Positive: Proven Leadership Strategies to Boost Productivity and Transform Your Business. McGraw Hill.

Tense meeting
courtesy of Simon Blackley
Business meeting courtesy of gailjadehamilton
Performance review ponderings courtesy of star5112

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Justin 14 December 2009 - 6:36 pm

The premise of this article is that performance reviews don’t have to be that bad. But I can’t help but wonder if there’s ever a right way to do a wrong thing?

Absolutely focus on strengths. This is good. But why wait until year’s end? And why sandwich it into a meeting that is generally also tied to goals and remuneration?

Performance reviews are too often likely to rupture relationships in the workplace, pit employees against each other (as described in the bell curve paragraph), focus employees on rewards and pay rather than the job, ignore the real reasons for performance issues, and as stated in the article: reduce motivation and energy related to the job, which is likely to create a decrement in flow, productivity, output, and general performance. Review time exacerbates stress in employees because performance reviews necessitate evaluation. A performance review is flawed from the outset.

Instead, I believe the most useful way to review performance is regularly and informally. Managers who take the time to sit with an employee and talk about work (perhaps weekly, fortnightly, or even monthly) will find out more about the employee, their motivations, their performance, their challenges and so on. Accountability may actually be heightened through regular informal “chats”. Relationships can be fostered. Performance can be enhanced.

Do away with official annual reviews and focus more on regular informal accountability sessions.

For more, see Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by Rewards.

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 14 December 2009 - 7:16 pm

Yes, performance reviews are often a much dreaded “project”, and having carried quite a few myself, I’d like to reinforce that the process needs to be revised. Very often, managers are constrained by the official HR guidelines. In the organization where I used to work for example, I would have had a hard time starting with strengths, only because the questions on the required form were more deficiency-oriented, and strict use of the document was encouraged. So this discussion is a very good one for HR departments and business execs to ponder! Questions such as:
– When do you feel best able to make a significant contribution?
– What skills made you best stand out in your role this year?
– How can I best help you get to the next level?
– What new skills would you enjoy learning?
– What part of your job energizes you the most? How can you do more of it?
– How are your strengths complementing those of your teammates?

clearly deserve more attention in this dreaded process. And to Justin’s point above, maybe rather than performance reviews, it’s time we start working on performance previews – in the spirit of giving good feedforward as opposed to feedback…


Denise Quinlan 15 December 2009 - 5:44 am

Hi MJ,
lovely article – I agree that performance reviews can be made so much more useful as you suggest. To allow people to really focus on how much better they could be, to explore where else they want to contribute etc, it’s important that they don’t have to come to the meeting in trepidation of an axe dropping on them.

One workplace I know has a ‘no surprises’ rule for performance review meetings. Nothing can be raised in the meeting that hasn’t already been discussed during the year. Puts the onus on managers to address issues as they arise.

Thanks to you and Justin for article and comments,

Senia 15 December 2009 - 5:51 am

Justin, Marie-Jo, Denise –

You know what else is nice about your suggestions? The incremental nature of them. We learn in so many other fields – self-regulation (right, Marie-Jo?!), goals, strengths, decision-making – that incremental change can bring big rewards.

So I really like that you each propose incremental change.
Justin, we completely agree with regularly and informally.
Marie-Jo, great questions to frame the discussion.
Denise, great suggestion about ‘no surprises’ and the onus on the manager.

Our best, Thanks and happy holidays,

Margaret 15 December 2009 - 5:53 am

Justin, Marie-Jo, Denise – we couldn’t agree more!

Fortunately some organizations have progressive HR people (like our MAPP colleague Doug Turner) and they are revamping the process. Many organizations now separate performance discussions from salary discussions and development discussions. But the most significant change of all is the frequent and informal discussions that occur between the manager and the employee, using more positive questions like the ones Marie-Jo proposes. One of my clients asked her employees to imagine that it was a year from now and write their “review” from the perspective of all they had accomplished (a modified “Best Possible Self” exercise) — a great example of what you call a “preview” versus a “review”.

Thank you for sharing your enthusiastic views on this dreaded process. We hope our book generates this kind of passion!


Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 15 December 2009 - 2:39 pm

Love the modified best possible self exercise, thanks for bringing it up! I’m sure the book will be a huge success – it addresses a very pressing need, and all your excepts so far have been fantastic!



Louis Aloro 16 December 2009 - 6:11 pm

Great suggestions, everyone. I love what you say, Senia — that it is about incremental changes and shared knowledge. That we’re all in this together.

Make it a great holiday (www.coachlouis.com/blog)!



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