I get calls at this time of year from leaders in organisations who have left the mid-year assessment to the last minute (or their managers have). Regardless of which side of the review they are on, they all say something like: “Phil, I hate these things. They are such a waste of time. They just do more harm than good”. They seek help to make the performance appraisal process more palatable for them, and more valuable for the organisation.
It raises an important question- should organisations do away with performance appraisal processes? My simple answer is an emphatic NO. Performance reviews are critical on a number of levels, and simply because people perform them poorly is not a signal to ditch them, but rather a signal to somehow do them differently.
Why are they critical?
Performance reviews are important for individuals and for organisations. They provide the link for learning by individuals regarding the behaviours they should demonstrate more or less of, the skills they need to acquire, and the opportunity to agree on goals moving forward. They also provide a paper trail which is important to the individual and the manager, and can provide a structured framework around which development discussions at an enterprise level can be conducted.
If done correctly, the performance review is a critical part of the business process (plan-perform-measure-review) which allows assessment, testing, planning and enhancement of performance within the organisation. The heart of the performance appraisal should focus on behavioural exploration, reinforcement of desired behaviours, defining skill and behaviour gaps and modification of non-valuable behaviours to enhance the capacity of the person to perform better in future.
Even though they are critical, too many managers and organisations simply ‘stuff’ them up.
Here are seven key issues commonly ruining performance reviews, and what you can do about them.
1. Managers are not skilled in performance review processes.
When I took on my first management role, I was given no specific instruction in how to conduct a successful performance review. The best I got was a corporate template which acted as a ‘fill the box and score’ tool.
In reality, there are a significant number of skills and behaviours that a manager needs to conduct a great performance review. These include communication skills, negotiation skills, having difficult conversations, coaching skills, evaluation skills and planning skills. These are only the start of an array of skills managers need to be an outstanding partner in performance review discussions.
Untrained managers will revert to their ‘instincts’ and habitual styles, which may be completely inappropriate for the performance review. Being under-skilled may also encourage them to be defensive, dismissive and even avoidant of the difficult elements of performance discussions, which makes them extremely problematic.
What to do:
Evaluate the skill level of your managers to conduct performance reviews, identify the skill and behaviour gaps, and invest in bringing them up to standard. Make this part of the manager’s performance goals.
2. It is not about performance, but judgement and process.
I once had a manager fly in from another city, to say “I don’t think you have very good customer relationships” in my performance appraisal, which was already filled out before they got off the plane! For this manager, the appraisal session had nothing to do with my performance, but about completing the task and making judgements (from 500 km away). Needless to say, I refused to sign the evaluation until that manager came out in the field with me. When they saw my relationships with the most important customers to the business, this manager had to tear up their first ‘evaluation’ and start again.
When performance reviews are simply what managers ‘think’ about a staff member, and are only completed because they are required, then situations like this occur. No wonder people find their performance reviews unpleasant and demotivating. This type of review is seen as unfair and lacks true transparency or participation, which can make this process one of profound disengagement.
What to do:
Ensure that managers evaluate true performance, have identifiable measures and examples to discuss objective performance rather than subjective judgements. Make sure managers have performance discussions to appraise and enhance performance on a regular basis, not simply because they have to.
3. The wrong things are measured.
From a behaviourist perspective, performance appraisals are an opportunity to reinforce and invite behaviours so that they happen with greater (or lesser) probability. However, when we choose the wrong things to focus on, we can actively discourage performance behaviours. For example, when pass/fail judgements are made on outcomes rather than evaluating the specific behaviours demonstrated, then we reinforce the need to achieve a ‘pass’, rather than have the person seek excellence. We introduce perfectionism, rather than identify behaviours which, across context, deliver excellence overall. People can exhibit counterproductive behaviours and still achieve the outcome. Reviewing only ‘success’ can reinforce these negative behaviours.
Even worse, when we appraise aggregate products (such as group outputs, where many behaviours from many people impact the result), we run the risk of measuring the person not on their performance, but on the meta-contingencies in play to produce the outcome. Focussing on the aggregate product encourages individuals to find ways of delivering the output (even if these are antisocial, against purpose or strategy, and damaging to others) it does nothing to enhance the probability of high performance behaviours being conducted in future by the individual in other contexts and circumstances.
What to do.
Measure individual behaviours and contributions, and consider how these impact the aggregate product. Do not measure pass/fail attributes of performance, but think of defining ‘more of’ and ‘less of’ behaviours that lead to high performance.
4. You don’t know what you are reinforcing
Humans are more complex than rats and pigeons, but the experiments on reinforcement of behaviour have proven relevant time and again. One of the interesting things in such experiments is when the researcher aims to reinforce one behaviour, they can inadvertently reinforce something different by how the reinforcer is supplied.
We see inadvertent or inappropriate reinforcement in people all the time. Consider the idea of superstition – if I wear my lucky socks I win the bingo, because that happened once – the wrong thing has been inadvertently reinforced.
Performance reviews are often great examples of reinforcing the wrong behaviours by how we supply the reinforcement. Rather than identifying the behaviours that serve the culture and drive high performance, we often reinforce counterproductive behaviours. The process of performance review can reinforce unhealthy power dynamics between boss and staff member (signals of reward and punishment may seem dependent upon the position I take in the performance discussion) and extinction may occur (positive reinforcements at the time are overpowered by negative flooding of a poor experience discussing the task or behaviours in the performance review). If the staff member expects praise for a behaviour and they don’t get it, this can act as a negative ‘punishment’ signal for the behaviour.
What to do
Managers need to be explicit about what is being reinforced, and why. They need to be aware that the ‘process’ of reviewing performance also acts in its own way as an object for reinforcement, as well as a reinforcer. Being careful to set the discussion up, define what is to be reinforced (and how), and continuously checking how the person is responding to the conversation are all critical elements of a high quality performance review.
5. It is not a transparent process
I once was newly appointed to an executive team, where all the employees of the group had their performance evaluated and rated behind closed doors. My first time in this process was fascinating- I could see grudges played out, favourites amplified and people passing judgement on others because they could (even when it was not objective and has no bearing on them!). Individuals across the group were graded on a bell curve, and the ‘results’ were handed to the individual manager to discuss with each staff member.
The lack of transparency and the ability for non-performance elements to impact appraisal was truly staggering. Rather than being focused on individual performance and how to enhance it, the process was competitive and used to place people in some order. Individual discussions then were conducted, not about what actually happened, but on the pretence that the individual’s performance drove the outcome.
What to do:
Discussions about staff ranking and development planning should be separate from performance evaluations and discussions. Discussions need to be transparent, objective, individual and specific, and not relative to others.
6. It is a point in time, not a continuous process of shaping
An appointment request arrives in your inbox: “Phil and manager, yearly appraisal”. You accept, dig out your goals, assemble you evidence and discussion points, and meet for the ‘one hit’ performance discussion. For many people, it is intimidating, remote from the work as it happens, and only reinforces their powerlessness and need to ‘pass’ the implied test of the session.
A better approach is to be a coaching leader, engaging your staff in continuous performance discussions, appraisals and reinforcements. The year-end or half-year appraisal is then a summary, a refinement and a planning session. There should never be any surprises in the formal performance review. This way it reduces the fear, takes out the pass/fail element and means reinforcement is both relevant and timely.
What to do:
Train your managers so that every conversation is a performance enhancing (coaching) conversation. Be transparent about the formal appraisal meeting and use it to enhance, summarise and extend the in-flow coaching conversations.
7. It is backward looking. It doesn’t test repertoire.
Too often, the performance review looks at what was achieved, rather than the skills that were exhibited in delivering the outcome. By taking a skills and behaviours approach, we can discuss the things which will drive future performance, not just look at what was achieved.
Reviewing performance against goals that were set allows assessment. If performance goals are structured around only achievement of task (delivery of program), then the conversation remains backward looking. If the conversation is deepened to the behaviours and skills that were demonstrated in the delivery, specific elements can be reinforced in or out, and highlighted for selection in future projects. Importantly, conversations can then be had relating to application of these skills and behaviours in current or upcoming contexts, which then adds significan value to the person moving forward.
What to do:
Change the quality of the conversation, from past oriented task completion (and goal setting) to take the discussion to the deeper level of skills and behaviours, and how these can be recombined to support high performance in completing the tasks set in the next period as ‘goals’
There are many ways that managers and organisations set up their performance review processes to fail. Even worse, many things that managers do in performance reviews simply reinforce the wrong things – even severely counterproductive behaviours. By understanding and addressing these seven areas, you can revolutionise your performance review process into a valuable part of the overall business process and a key component of enhancing high performance and success.