Monday, February 23

Performance Reviews: Useful or Useless?

Samuel A. Culbert, professor of management and organizations at UCLA Anderson, believes performance reviews serve no useful purpose. Actually, they don't serve any purpose other than to waste time and increase anxiety.

His editorial in Thursday's edition of Chicago Tribune is bluntly titled "Get rid of the performance review." The tag line on his web site reads "It's time to put the performance review out of its misery."

I remember doing and getting performance reviews. I remember the HR team sending out reminders about how to do performance reviews, explaining that no one should get a 5 (exceptional) on anything unless they have really been, well, exceptional, and also explaining that performance review notes from the manager had to be reviewed by HR before they could be shared with the employee. To avoid lawsuits. Well, they didn't say that last part but it was clear that liability was a concern.

I hated doing and getting performance reviews. We had to stretch too hard to figure out goals and objectives that really made sense, that could be achieved, and that were measurable. And yet, as Dr. Culbert points out, we have to hold employees accountable.

At some of my employers, there was talk of 360 reviews, but those never happened. I don't know if it was lack of time, lack of a protocol to do the 360 reviews, or if no one really wanted to know what the results might be. I fear the latter.

Dr. Culbert prescribes replacing the performance review with the performance preview. Slippery that. But this isn't Dr. Culbert's first dance at this particular party. He first published an article in 2008 and in the Wall Street Journal on the same topic. It was in the WSJ article he first mentioned his concept of the preview.

Now before I talk about that, take a moment, please, to consider the words "review" and "preview." A review is done after the fact. It's like taking a test and getting a grade. Depending on one's interaction with one's manager, the manager may have no idea there are any real problems until the review. By then, it's too late. The preview, on the other hand, takes place before. And it's at that point we can see how there could be a discernible and interesting difference between "review" and "preview."

In the WSJ article, Dr. Culbert describes the performance preview.
The alternative to one-side-accountable, boss-administered/subordinate-received performance reviews is two-side, reciprocally accountable, performance previews. . . .
The boss's assignment is to guide, coach, tutor, provide oversight and generally do whatever is required to assist a subordinate to perform successfully. That's why I claim that the boss-direct report team should be held jointly accountable for the quality of work the subordinate performs. . .
. . . Previews are problem-solving, not problem-creating, discussions about how we, as teammates, are going to work together even more effectively and efficiently than we've done in the past. They feature descriptive conversations about how each person is inclined to operate, using past events for illustrative purposes, and how we worked well or did not work well individually and together. . . .
Realistic assessment of someone's positive qualities requires replacing scores on standardized checklists with inquiry. As a result, step No. 1 in giving effective feedback almost always involves "active questioning" inquiry. Inquiry contrasts with most performance reviews, which begin with how the evaluator sees the individual and what that boss has already decided most needs enhancing. Both participants need an answer to the most significant issue at hand: "Given who I am and what I'm learning about this other individual, what's the best way for us to complement one another in getting work accomplished with excellence?". . . 
Bosses should be asking all the questions that occur to them in inquiring about how a subordinate thinks he or she can best perform the job. Then, after they have exhausted their questions, they should ask the subordinate for what else they need to know. At a minimum, they should be asking "How will you be going about it?" and "Specifically, what help do you need from me?"
When I was responsible for doing performance reviews, I tried to spend time during my 1:1 meetings to review the performance review documents to measure and monitor progress. We also talked about whether or not we needed adjust any of the objectives, so, when needed, we'd document that. The performance review wasn't really a review, but we used that document as a resource to determine if and how the employee was going to be successful in completing his or her tasks and how well I was doing to ensure that employee's success.

Maybe I was ahead of my time on that.

In the long run, I don't think we should eradicate performance reviews. I think we need to refine the structure and structure of the performance review. But I also think managers need to be better trained in helping their employees write their goals and objectives, in managing their employees' expectations about those performance reviews, and in monitoring that performance. There are too many managers who don't bother to think about the performance review until it's time to complete them and, again, that's too late. The manager who meets regularly with his or her employees should schedule time, maybe only once a month, to do a review of the review. That helps everyone stay on track and, I think, means the review and the process of review might actually be useful. . .for the employee, the manager, and the company.

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