Laura Johnson asks the question - is it time to be candid about performance reviews?
It's performance review time of year in many offices. Groans of despair are audible across the disgruntled corporate landscape. Over the coming months, one by one you’ll be dragging members of your team up from the comfort of their desks into a meeting room. Over a table scattered with various forms, you’ll awkwardly discuss where their accomplishments in the past year sit on an unforgiving five-point scale. Unsurprisingly the whole process isn’t particularly popular with employees or managers raising the question; have performance reviews become a pointless office ritual?
Why do we bottle up praise and criticism and wait until the end of a year to talk about it? The trend for instantaneous communication seems to have permeated most other aspects of our working lives, but when it comes to recognising the endeavours of our teams, we prefer to delay feedback and make it an annual ceremony. To make things worse, performance reviews are not only universally detested but also usually poorly executed.
The flow charts and diagrams that your HR team use to represent the review process present an image of a meticulously prepared appraisal method that is unwaveringly fair, strategically imperative and mutually rewarding for manager and employee alike. The reality unfortunately often looks a little more like this:
HR sends out the alert
An email arrives in your inbox to announce annual review time has arrived, complete with a list of instructions and deadlines. Your heart sinks a little, you file the email away promising to look at it later and ask your secretary to dig out last year’s employee development plans from archives.
Panic sets in
Your deadline for submitting reviews is a week away. Eek. Last year’s development plans still haven’t materialised, you’ve got 20 team members eager to be appraised, every one of them is anxious that you’re not going to get around to doing theirs (as are you) and HR is on your back to return a mountain of paperwork.
Performance review overload
As deadline day looms closer, managers burn the midnight oil wading through the forms, racking their brains trying to remember what an employee did last week let alone in the last 12 months. Reviewees are equally disconcerted and spend sleepless nights stressing about what’s going to be revealed at their review. Ironically everyone’s performance suffers during this period as real work is sidelined.
Good intentions go out the window
Carefully scheduled meetings, shoe-horned expertly into your jam-packed diary get cancelled or postponed as other pressures inevitably get in the way. Performance reviews end up being hurried 10 minute chats where you tick the necessary boxes and deliver a few bland, empty platitudes.
The post review slump
The bewildered worker spends another sleepless night mulling over each and every word of your conversation searching for hidden messages amongst your vague and meaningless mutterings. They end up feeling under-valued and resentful of any criticism, regardless of how constructively you think you’ve phrased it. Uncertain of what the future holds for them, they promptly resolve to start looking for a new job.
Forget it for another year
Shortly after the review meetings conclude, development plans are shared and filed away in a safe place where they can gather dust.
So where did it all go wrong? The annual performance review has fallen out of date. Such cyclical and rigid processes may have worked back in the days when leaders were dictators and hierarchies were taller but they jar awkwardly with today’s open-plan cultures, flatter structures and autonomous workforces.
More enlightened companies are gradually taking the bold step to experiment with less formal, more real time practices. Microsoft famously scrapped its stacked ranking system in 2012 proclaiming it had crippled its ability to innovate. They’re not alone. Adobe, Kelly Services and Netflix have all boasted extensively about the benefits of swapping annual appraisals for more regular reviews and more frequent informal check-ins.
But the majority of businesses remain reluctant to take such a big leap, favouring the security and predictability of the traditional approaches over finding new ways to effectively manage their talent. As a result, performance management lingers as a burden and an administrative necessity to keep HR off managers’ backs. Thank goodness review season will all be over soon for another year.