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
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
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?
There are three things you can do to make performance reviews more energizing for both your employees and yourself:
- Reframe how you view them.
Think of performance reviews as a time to reinvigorate your employees. View them as an investment, not a chore.
- 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.
- 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.