Performance review season tends to come once or twice a year. I’ve had formal reviews of my performance and goals both semi-annually and annually and can honestly say I found neither approaches effective. The fundamental problem with the length of time between performance reviews is that the feedback from six or, heaven forbid, twelve months ago is in no way timely and consequently no longer relevant. Being told about something I could have done differently six months ago was beyond aggravating. How could I be expected to change my behaviour when no one told me? And, if you know me, I like to be right (or at least do things the right way); telling me sooner means I can take steps to correct my behaviour immediately instead of continuing on oblivious. The worst feeling I’ve ever had was when I thought everything was going really well and had my reality obliterated in an annual performance review. Talk about disengaging!
And if moments like that aren’t enough, we’ve all spent hours agonizing to prepare a self-assessment and stressing about how much to document to make the strongest case for the rating you believe you deserve. Finished, you send your dissertation off and anticipate the moment when you get to sit down with your leader to discuss all the things you’ve done. Then the moment is here, you’re ready to talk about and defend each point, your leader has your review in her hand, you get your copy and you see… she’s added two sentences worth of comments and circled your rating at the bottom of the page. Deflated, you sit through your review and realize that all of those hours could have been spent on anything else that actually contributed to your results. And then we do it all again six- or twelve-months later. Madness.
In a similar vein, setting performance goals for the next six months to a year always turns out to be a bit of a joke. If you made your goals specific at the beginning of the year, they often became irrelevant and were soon abandoned when priorities shifted. Some of my year-end reviews have noted that priorities had changed and certain goals were no longer applicable and therefore did not need to be achieved. Super, what’s the point of your organization saying it’s going to hold people accountable? On the opposite end, if you made your goals ambiguous enough to survive direction changes, almost any of your activities from the year could be made to mark your goals as accomplished. “Demonstrate integrity in all activities and execute deliverables according to professional best practices.” Dude, I TOTALLY nailed that one. Give me a raise.
As for the rating you get in a review, many of the ratings are subjective and have completely different meanings when you compare performance across departments. In some organizations, these ratings are tied to pay increases whereas, in others, they have nothing to do with it (I’ve worked in both). Regardless, I have yet to find a performance rating system that clearly defines what you objectively need to do to achieve one rating versus another. One rating system I was scored on began with ratings of 1 (You’re awesome), 2 (You’re good), and 3 (You’re on your way out). After enough people complained that they were better than good, HR introduced a rating of 2+ (You’re better than good but not yet awesome). To get a 1, the unwritten rule was to have 100% billable time (2080 hours per year) which meant you either went without professional development and days off or worked enough overtime to cover it (or both). Another system had ratings of 1 (You’re on your way out), 2 (You’re needing to improve), 3 (You’re meeting expectations), 4 (You’re exceeding expectations), and 5 (You’re significantly exceeding expectations). To this day I have no idea what the difference is between 1 and 2 nor do I know what you need to do to get a 5. If a performance rating indicates a person is on their way out, that should have already been dealt with. And, if you can’t distinguish between exceeding expectations and significantly exceeding them, do away with that top rating.
If we all know these things happen, why continue to propagate the behaviour? Saying, “we’ve always done it this way,” is not okay. What if we simplified things, expected people to behave like adults, and respected everyone by knowing they aren’t about to fall apart when they’re told they’re meeting expectations?
After over 10 years working in different roles for a variety of companies and leaders, these are my thoughts on how to better approach performance reviews and ratings:
- Create a document that sets down performance expectations that everyone agrees to abide by; it can be as simple as a one-pager. I see four pillars of responsibility that make up this document:
- Co-Workers – You conduct yourself with respect and professionalism in your day-to-day interactions; you provide coaching, guidance, and support to co-workers; and you actively contribute to everyone’s engagement.
- Relationships – You put effort into making connections, sharing connections, and fostering relationships inside and outside of your department.
- Results – You are accountable for results, plain and simple.
- Leadership – You have (in)formal leadership responsibilities, regardless of whether or not you have direct reports. Being a leader includes being driven and self-accountable, identifying and acting on opportunities and improvements, and raising risks and issues that could jeopardize results.
- Move to quarterly performance check-ins rather than semi-annual or annual reviews. These check-ins are a dialogue between the leader and their employee about the employee’s did-wells, areas to improve, and what support the employee needs from leadership. Goals can be reviewed and revised, and the conversation continues about career path and professional development. Everything – results, feedback, goals, and development – remains timely and relevant. And let me throw this at you: documentation optional.
- Mid-year and/or annual performance ratings are eliminated. No kidding, gone. As a leader, you know who the top, middle, and bottom performers are on your team. If an employee still has a job, chances are good they’re achieving the desired results and any performance issues have already been discussed, either when they happened or in the latest quarterly check-in. If your organization doesn’t tie pay increases to performance ratings, here’s even more weight to the argument to get rid of them. I’ll make one caveat here. If your organization wishes to be aware of its top and up-and-coming talent, leaders could capture rankings (as I said, they know their team) for the purpose of internal awareness and planning. But that’s as far as it goes; internal ratings do not get shared with the employee or far-and-wide across the organization.
- Establish a better feedback loop where employees can request feedback from co-workers (within and outside of the department), direct reports, and leader(s). Prior to a quarterly check-in, the leader asks their employees if any would like feedback from a handful of people on did-wells, areas to improve, and general comments. This keeps it relevant and the people contributing can provide feedback that is closer to top-of-mind.
It really does seem this straightforward to me and I’m sure there are people who will point out where this falls down (which is good, we can find a better approach that way). But that doesn’t stop me from believing that teams, departments, and organizations can take these fundamental ideas and tailor the approach so people will respond positively. The key will be the courage of leaders to shake things up, make these ideas a reality, and hold everyone accountable every day, not just once or twice a year.