The Performance Review Process: Does Not Meet Expectations

A Seven Minute Read

It’s nearly the time of year when people – and their attitudes and behavior – are judged. Folks are stack-ranked, and divided into those that will receive an end-of-year bounty, and those who will not. The documentation will be thoroughly reviewed and then the goods will be distributed.

That’s Santa Claus’ process. For the rest of us, there are performance reviews.

Few topics raise as much ire among both bosses and subordinates, as the review process. This is one thing almost peopleeveryone can agree on: Reviews are painful, bureaucratic, and a time sink.

The November Harvard Business Review features a hagiograph from Facebook executives (speaking of time sinks), who laud their own ability to transcend the standard performance review. The article boasts of their ability to take the dull, ineffective process of peer-reviews, rating employees and creating development plans with … peer reviews that rate employees to create development plans.

(This is a perfect metaphor for so many millennial-driven business models. Facebook rejects the status quo as irrelevant and unworkable, so they created something fancy and new. Then they let it regress to the mean – so it looks and functions exactly like the old stodgy process.)

In the article, Facebook cites neuroscience and peoples’ ability to “learn to respond differently” to feedback. In other words, to improve the review process, the best thing for employees is to learn how to take it better.

It is not difficult to list the many reasons why the review process, as practiced in most organizations,  is completely broken. Far from a complete inventory, here is a sample:

  • Ratings are inconsistently applied – or applied on a curve.
    If the ball moves 100 yards, that’s a touchdown. You can’t say at halftime – or on Monday morning – that Peyton Manning had too many yards, so you’re going to re-run the numbers for him using 120 yards as the benchmark.
  • The discussions are awkward and unproductive.
    People say they want feedback; most only want “good” feedback.
  • Reviews tend to lack specifics.
    I could show you some examples, but I think you know what I’m talking about. Yeah, there are too many examples to mention.
  • The specifics that are included are “gotchas”.
    The seven hundred and sixty-three times an employee does her job correctly are unmentioned; the one time it caused embarrassment is documented forever.
  • Documentation is more weapon than tool.
    Reviews are perceived as paper trails in case the employer ever needs to justify disciplinary action.
  • The whole process is adversarial.
    The boss becomes a prosecutor, not a teammate.
  • The “forms” are bureaucratic and a waste of time.
    If you took all of the time spent designing evaluation forms, and the “training” materials (and meetings) that went along with them, and spent them on something strategic, where would your organization be? By their very design, they need to be one-size-fits-all, which means the content has been normalized to the extent that they are useless.

    This is what one size fits all looks like.
    This is what one size fits all looks like.
  • The review process is incorrectly and artificially linked to pay increases.
    People are not paid what they are worth; they are paid what’s in budget. (Ignore that if money is a function of performance, then performance becomes a function of money.) Bundling the “salary increase” process and “performance” process creates unneeded tension.
  • They are way too infrequent.
    Why wait a year to deal with an issue – or celebrate one? (How much hold does Santa’s list have in March, as compared to late November?)
  • Reviews don’t change behavior.
    People are going to do what they are going to do. If goals aren’t linked to something meaningful, and the consequences of that don’t encourage a behavior change, why bother?
  • Actually, no one knows if they work.
    With all the time invested in the process, what is the return?

The “review process”, in whatever form it takes, should accomplish two things. First, it should clarify and build agreement about past performance; second, it should set clear, measurable goals against which the performer will be reviewed next.

Most leaders would generally agree with these goals, yet the execution is generally terrible. Following are five ideas to accomplish the same objectives, but better, and without all the faffing about.

1. Limit the ‘Score’ to Two Variables Only

..and those variables are “Values” and “Strategy”. In disciplined organizations, daily activities and major initiatives both support strategic objectives: divisional goals (and project objectives) should roll up to the strategy; regional and departmental goals (and their project objectives) should roll up to divisional objectives, hierarchyand so on. Whatever the employee’s role – from CEO to nightsweeper – her work should be evaluated on how it accomplishes and fits into these cascading objectives.

Of course, day-to-day interactions, relationship management, and just plain professionalism will not be addressed in strategic goals. Those “softer” goals should still be specific, and dictated by corporate Values.

“But I do that already,” everyone says. The discipline – and thus the value – comes from the second step, which is: Eliminate any performance goals that do not visibly and directly roll up to a higher objective.

To avoid any perception of unfairness – particularly around squishier values-based goals – draw up specific examples of what the behavior at each level looks like.

2. Link Goals

Tying individual goals directly to “next level” objectives should foster teamwork. However, a crucial player is still missing from that equation – the boss. A manager should not be evaluated without considering the performance of her team, nor should individuals be considered outside of their relationship with leadership. One cannot succeed without the other in a functional organization. The performance measures – and the evaluation itself – should treat both the performer and manager as a unit.

Consider using the team – as a group – to set and confirm performance goals. Since they are all linked, why not?

3. Leverage Past Work for Future Performance

Reviews, by definition, look backwards – more report card than plan. Use the information gathered to craft a performer-specific plan on how to accomplish the goals; this may involve “personal development” in addition to basic tactical planning. This may seem obvious, but articulate the clear, direct links between what is being asked for and where the employee has succeeded in the past.

4. Keep a Journal

No matter how frequently performance discussions are held, they are probably not frequently enough (particularly given a growing dependence on [immediate feedback]); no one should trust their memory for such critical conversations. Keeping notes – and regularly reviewing – on employee performance builds a wide representation of examples to share. Feedback is most meaningful when it is specific and pinpointed. This habit also fights the “availability heuristic”, where we put more credence in things that we just learned.

(Here’s hoping no one has the bad sense to walk around with a journal, malevolently taking notes while observing employees. After all, that’s a consultant’s job.)

5. Follow, Don’t Lead, the Discussion

This should be a two-way dialog, not a managerial soliloquy. Many organizations have made the right move and migrated from a complete “top-down” approach to incorporate self-evaluations; this goes one step further. Rather than giving employees a form and comparing it to the manager’s “answer key”, why not just let the employee write his or her own review from scratch? They know the goals, they should know how they are doing… let them write what they want and submit it to the manager in advance. Ask them to provide specific examples of their behavior. In the face-to-face discussion, they can lead the conversation. If there are any glaring omissions or corrections, then the manager can step in. Think of this as Dr. Covey’s fifth Habit – “Seek first to understand, then be understood.”


Finally – here’s a bonus, sixth tip – consider eliminating the review process entirely. Where ongoing, pinpointed feedback is the norm, a formal review is redundant. Use the first three suggestions above in a continuous dialog to drive people forward, and the last two to structure that dialog – without the bureaucratic paper trail that makes people wonder how it will be used against them.

Any rating system should be absolute, not relative. If everyone on the team actually met the standard for “exceeds expectations”, then everyone on the team exceeded expectations. (This means two things – that’s a hell of a good team, and expectations need to be raised.) Second-graders receive two grades, one for “effort” and one for “achievement”; adults are graded only on accomplishment.

Whether reviewing past performance or previewing what’s to come, the content of the discussion should not be a surprise to anyone, nor should it feel arbitrary or competitive. Having clear, visible goals and consistent, objective standards eliminates that. Using the team to build those goals makes them visible and drives the objectivity.



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