A Performance Review Dream

In 2024, let’s ponder making some significant changes to—or, gasp, even eliminating the annual review process.

<insert dream sequence background music here>

What if…

We wanted to change the world enough to abolish the annual review process? (also known as the performance evaluation, goal-setting session, calibration, 360, performance management, performance appraisal—however it is referred to in your organization)?

What if…

So-called 360’s became a thing of the distant past? Has anyone ever had a stellar experience with these things?

What if…

Anniversary reviews went away. Is there anything good to say about these, especially when in the 360 format and due in December every year? You know the ones. A director has 24 direct reports and has to write one for all 24. Then write their own. They also may have to contribute to their direct leader or leaders’, too.

What if…

Employee satisfaction, culture, climate, and engagement surveys ended for good, as well? In organizations where things are generally going well, they aren’t needed. In organizations where things aren’t going as well, people may not be truthful in their responses. This indicates that more effective ways of getting to the root cause(s) and solutions are needed.

What if…

The raise, bonus, other type of compensation discussion is decoupled from this discussion completely? At best, the organization has had a terrific year and everyone leaves the discussion happy (yeah, that is never how it goes, right?). They are separate events. When combined, they hold the potential for mixed messaging—and worse.

Why ponder changing all of this?

Because people are busy so much of the time, these things are rushed through with the goal of just plain getting them done. This helps no one. There simply has to be a better way.

What Doesn’t Work

  • Inexperienced (unskilled?) leaders. An elevated role or title doesn’t confer stellar people skills adept at providing feedback well. Ever. Requiring employees to complete others’ feedback holds the potential of breaking people, even great performers.
  • Lack of skill and training. Organizations typically offer little to no training as to how to do these things well. Instead, what is shared is: Find the form here, deadline is XX/XX/XX, and…go! Isn’t the health of the organization and its culture—not to mention employee morale—worth investing qualified resources into ensuring that the people completing these reviews know what they’re doing? And that is done in respectful ways?
  • Ridiculous expectations. Completing these reviews is a test of a leader’s endurance (see comments about 360s and anniversary reviews above).
  • Check-the-box attitude or program. Too often, employees’ contributions are an activity to check a box, meaning their efforts don’t matter.
  • Reviewers who are great at their jobs, but not at coaching. Coaching and providing feedback well are not innate skills. It must be learned, practiced often, developed over time, and only applied after trust-filled relationships are well and truly established.
  • Receiving feedback without training or trust. Receiving feedback is also not an innate skill. Being on the receiving end of compliments, praise, and difficult conversations is rarely comfortable for anyone. The level of trust between the feedback sender and receiver must be extremely high. Otherwise, don’t go there.
  • Ridiculous forms and templates. Sometimes present review templates or forms are poorly designed documents with weird formatting. More commonly these days, information is typed into talent management systems. Few instructions are provided. A preset number of characters permitted. Sometimes there is a series of recursive questions, meaning the response generates a new question. None of this is conducive to free and creative thought or to writing caringly and thoughtfully about an ACTUAL PERSON.

What if…

Instead, we just have regular conversations with direct reports? Unscripted. A brief agenda when needed. Listening more than talking. Talking about what they need or want to talk about. Doing this often and well means the annual performance planning conversation and review will be less stressful for everyone. The result will be a higher degree of trust and engagement from everyone.

What if…

Until the proposed revolution happens, we consider these suggestions for making the process more bearable?

  • Don’t procrastinate. Whether you’re writing one or many reviews, your direct reports deserve you taking your time and not feeling rushed while writing and evaluating their performance. After all, it is largely all written down and part of their personnel file. If their performance has been stellar, it deserves time to be a fulsome accounting and “review” of their accomplishments and thoughts for the future. If their performance has been less than stellar, in one or more ways, they deserve your time to be fair-minded, even-tempered, and generous in your thoughts for the future. So begin as soon as the review period begins. When you begin as early as you can, you have the luxury of doing the research and completing a little bit each day.
  • No surprises. Ever.
  • The narrative should reflect the entire previous review period’s conversation between you. Also, it should never be only a few recent memories you haven’t previously discussed.
  • Keep excellent notes all year, so compiling them into the performance planning discussion and review should be relatively easy to pull together.
  • Engage in discussions with HR about changing the process.

Best wishes for quality conversations in real ways with real people with real feelings and emotions going forward!

Dawn J Mahoney, CPTD
Dawn J. Mahoney, CPTD, is the program content manager for Training magazine. She also owns Learning in The White Space LLC, a freelance talent development (“training”) and instructional design consultancy. She is passionate about developing people through better training, better instructional design, and better dialog. E-mail her at: dawn@trainingmag.com.