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Improving The Performance Review Process

The annual performance review has been much maligned in the past few years with many organisations deciding to abandon the annual review process all together and instead implementing “real-time” performance review processes. I understand this movement and personally, I’ve never been a fan of the once a year performance review process because there are simply too many flaws and failings in such an approach – For example:


1. It tends to be a backward-looking approach, focusing on what’s happened in the past rather than considering the strengths and areas for development in the “now” and considering a future focused view of supporting and enhancing performance and capability going forward.


2. Things that happen in the recent past tend to be remembered better than things that happened many months previous, so the focus of the review period tends to be skewed towards more recent events.


3. It is often a one-way dialogue where the manager or leader shares their view of what’s gone well an what hasn’t gone well, rather than it being a rich two-way conversation.


4. Many organisations I have known in the past use rating scales that are either ill-defined or that change each year so employees and managers have no real sense of the meaning of the rating scales and it becomes impossible then to look at year-on-year changes.


5. Managers are often ill prepared to manage the process. In some cases, managers simply do not have the capability as a result of lack of training or experience. The other more worrying aspect though is related to the lack of managerial courage sometimes evidenced during the performance review process (I will come back to this point later).


6. No matter how well constructed the process, definitions and ratings scales are, there is always a degree of subjectivity and variation in terms of the application of the assessment process from one manager to another.


7. Often the process itself can be overly bureaucratic and unnecessarily cumbersome, which turns employees and managers off from the get-go.


8. Ultimately, employees and managers usually spend an inordinate amount of time on a process the value of which is questionable at best and, at its worst may be considered by those involved to be a waste of time and effort.


So, what are some useful considerations to think about when approaching the performance review process. Here are some of my ideas, I will be interested to hear your thoughts:


A. Ensure your managers and people leaders are trained and equipped to carry out performance review conversations (Note: conversations and not the process of rating). Performance review conversations should be rich, meaningful, supportive and purposeful.


B. Whatever process you use, keep it simple and light on bureaucracy.


C. Ensure that, if rating scales are to be used, the rating criteria is well defined and understood by all managers and that they have some training and / or guidance to be able to interpret and apply the rating process in as consistent and fair a way as possible.


D. Expect managers to demonstrate managerial courage when holding performance conversations. A manager must be able to engage in open, two-way dialogue as well as providing direct and constructive feedback aimed at helping the employee to recognise areas for development and areas where improvement is necessary. At the same time, they should coach and mentor the employee as appropriate and put in place the support needed to ensure the employee has a real opportunity to address the development or performance issues. In short, managers need to be bold and brave! Failing to do so does the employee a disservice and lacks managerial courage.


Too many times in my previous corporate life, I experienced leaders asking for support to exit a “failing” employee. It was always curious to me (though after a while, not surprising) that the previous performance review(s) rating for the employee and supporting commentary bore no relation to this “failing” employee. i.e. the “failing” employee almost always had a previous performance review rating that characterised their performance as meeting or exceeding expectations.


You also see this apparent lack of managerial courage manifest in the distribution of ratings, where large numbers of employee ratings coalesce around the median with very few finding their way to the lower end of the rating scale. It simply does not represent the reality, and this may be evidence of people leaders playing it safe and not engaging in those often-challenging conversations.


E. Remember, don’t disqualify the positive from the conversations. Sincere praise and recognition should be offered freely (However, this again should not be confined to a once-a-year conversation). The adage of “catch someone doing something good” and recognising that when it happens holds true, and the benefits of doing so are huge!


F. Implement periodic “check in” conversations where managers connect with employees periodically to find out what’s going well for them, what could go better and what, if any, pain points they have where the manager could offer some help. Managers who are skilled at holding coaching conversations are doing this routinely but again this is not a common skillset in many organisations in my experience. Enlightened managers will journal these “check in” conversations and use it as a resource and reference for future coaching conversations and to inform the annual review conversation.


None of the above is particularly ground-breaking but it does require a conscious effort on behalf of organisations to invest in developing their managers of people to be able to carry out the process of performance review, in whatever form, in a way that is effective, valuable and makes a positive difference to both the employee and the organisation.





Rod Pearson

Managing Director – Bondgate (Scotland) Ltd

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