Performance Reviews: Abolish or Adapt?

Samuel A. Culbert is the most recent management expert to reignite a long-standing human resources debate, one as old as HR itself. The professor at the Anderson School of Management at the University of California at Los Angeles recently published his article “Get rid of the performance review” in the Chicago Tribune.

A Misleading Debate

In no uncertain terms, Culbert thoroughly and effectively dismantles the “corporate” performance review. His strong criticisms are ones you’ve heard before. Employees tend to keep mum on their true feelings for fear of negative review blowback. Accountability is placed solely on the employee, when management, in reality, is a two-way street with the manager on the other side. And finally, bureaucratic performance reviews think all of our colorful employees are equal in the eyes of numerical objectivity. “They assume that everybody should be measured against the same yardsticks,” Culbert writes.

Namely has published its own whitepaper on Reinventing the Performance Review, and it has sparked its own share of debate. On one side, we heard from an employee who—despite several favorable performance reviews in the past—was discharged when an overly critical manager, in the employee’s eyes, let him go on the basis of a negative review. Standing opposite him is a hopeful practitioner who reached out to us, with the belief that performance reviews can be all about positivity. Let the worker be your guide, she said, with their own “stated needs” in addition to self-identified points of improvement. Then, see where the manager can best support them.

What do we really argue about when we argue about performance reviews?

We should start by admitting there’s an overused shock factor whenever a professional calls for an end to performance reviews. You can’t help but click the link when the vision of employees running amok springs to mind—office anarchy and desks on fire. The misleading debate is further wrapped up in the term itself: performance review. In the blogosphere, the phrase has become synonymous with the flavor of rigid, pen and paper, scale-of-one-to-ten reviews, the kind that are hard to find any supporters for. But HR professionals still take the bait: Are they talking about my performance management strategy? Do they mean my reviewing methods?

We will always need better solutions for managing our people, and any HR professional will be happy to point out flaws in some current yet outdated performance reviewing methods. All of these debates always roll around to plausible solutions. A replacement, a revamp, or a new technique that the author won’t dare smudge with the dreaded "performance review" labeling.

The naming itself can certainly be adapted or abolished. But at the end of the day, the HR solution—the management solution—boils down to one thing. It’s the thing we’re arguing about: how to have meaningful conversations about performance.

Courageous Conversations

Culbert in the Chicago Tribune closes with his own solution of “performance previewing”—having ongoing conversations (certainly more frequently than “annually”) that focus on problem-solving and future development. Furthermore, the boss and employee are both accountable; the boss provides the baseball and the bat, and the employee steps up to knock it out of the park. Culbert then comes right out and says “real conversations” should be at the heart of the review process, the kind where “everybody owns what they think.” It’s what real collaboration is all about.

Stuart Agsteribbe stands by the same concept, what he terms “courageous conversations.” The global HR technology strategist spent four years at Bersin by Deloitte, and during his performance management session at New York’s first HR Unconference, he explained that face-to-face, honest discussions must take place between manager and employee. What works and what doesn’t in the office? Isn’t that the question bureaucratic performance reviews get at, albeit by defunct means for today’s workplace? Agsteribbe pointed out that no matter your method—old school or new school—you can’t assess performance without courageous conversations.

Finally, Dr. Leslie Bessellieu, the CEO at Transformations Consulting and Leadership Development and former executive coach at the Columbia College Breed Leadership Center, told Namely that reviews need to be “positive, growth-oriented conversations.” Understand the direction your employee needs to head early on—so those harder conversations become ones of advancement and progress, not dread.

Apt Adaption: Where to Go from Here

Managers will always, of course, need to manage. And no one is eagerly defending a performance process that technology and shape-shifting markets have long since outgrown. So get your own performance conversations going. You know your people best, and these tips can help you get to know them even better.

      Get the 360° view.

Conversations should be reciprocal, a meeting of the boss and the employee. Incorporate self-evaluations (consider even making those the focus of the review), and solicit peer feedback to add another dimension to your talks.

      Keep the conversations going, year-round.

Bi-weekly check-ins are great for keeping up with subordinates, and anyone can fit them into a busy schedule. Keeps tabs on employee attitudes this way, and save more formal documentation for the quarter.

      Face-to-face is the best way for minds to meet.

Perhaps the number one criticism of bureaucratic, digitally documented performance reviews is the lack of human touch. No matter your process, make sure it involves face-to-face meetings at some point.

      Make the digital process equally friendly.

For the documentation of your reviews—at whatever level your organization settles on—make sure your employees have a user-friendly platform that they actually want to use, one that isn’t a drag to submit through.

      Be real, and just keep talking.

Your employees are people, and the workplace sometimes forces a mask over who they really are—maybe with a matching suit and tie. See how they light up when you learn a few things about them, like their hobbies, what sports they love, and check-in with them regularly. All conversations, malleable as they are, can benefit from a dose of personality. Employees will appreciate knowing where they stand, especially when they know you care about them as people.

Do your performance reviews need a review? Namely's new guide will give you the essentials needed to build a culture that embraces feedback. 


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