Most managers must spend a certain amount of time and energy on periodic formal reviews. Depending on the organization, it may be a yearly ritual or much more often. These formal reviews usually take up a lot of time and attention in any event.
What often passes for structured or substantive management communication—sometimes the only such communication—are the performance reviews that managers are required by most organizations to have with their direct reports annually or every six months, or every quarter. Three-, six-, and twelve-month reviews have long been notorious for their lack of efficacy. Employees have told us for years in our interviews that formal reviews rarely give them meaningful, helpful feedback:
“They do it just because they have to.”
“Sometimes they don’t even do it.”
“They do it late or last minute.”
“Some managers just ask the employees to write their own reviews.”
“It’s all politics, who they like.”
“Reviews are too vague.”
“Reviews are too specific, mentioning something that happened months and months ago.”
“My review was done by someone who doesn’t even manage me daily.”
“My review focused on things I can’t control like overall numbers that are not just affected by my performance.”
And so on.
The Effectiveness of Formal Reviews
Formal reviews tend to fall somewhere on the spectrum between two extremes. On one end, they focus on highly subjective feedback but without the benefit of regular, ongoing, day-to-day input along the way. This sort of review tends to be distinctive and incidental, reflecting what a manager has observed, if there is a big win or if there is a significant problem.
More and more common is the other end of the spectrum. Reviews increasingly rely on the elements of employee performance that are tracked (more or less) automatically—bottom-line numbers that appear in weekly or monthly reports. Today, managers at all levels are given performance objectives (usually articulated in numbers) for every dimension of their operations.
The very worthy intention is to focus on concrete, measurable outcomes. The problem is that usually, the numbers serve as a trigger for cascading recrimination (or praise), even though what gets measured is often not tied directly to actions in the control of individual employees. Meanwhile, most leading organizations are moving to “forced ranking.” This is the practice whereby managers are required to make candid evaluations of every employee according to a tightly proscribed distribution of grades such as A, B, and C. Sadly. However, evaluation and differentiation are essential. This is an exercise in annual guesswork unless managers monitor, measure, and document every employee’s performance on an ongoing basis.
Once, twice, or four times a year doesn’t do the trick. When the manager does not monitor and measure and document each employee’s actual performance (concrete actions within their control) on an ongoing basis, ranking—and the differential rewards that go with ranking—often are not clearly enough connected to the performance of each individual in question. So the system is perceived as inconsistent and unfair. Over and over again, I have seen forced-ranking and pay-for-performance initiatives result in disastrous morale because managers failed to do the necessary work.
Common Management Responses
If you were to speak with the manager of a project-gone-wrong, asking them to do a postmortem on precisely what went wrong, if they are like most of the managers I’ve studied, they’d probably say something like this:
As usual, the problems that occurred were due to many factors beyond my control. We lost our best employee, and her replacement was not yet up to speed. Resources are tight. Changes in the project specifications came from someone else somewhere else—maybe a customer or a vendor or a counterpart in another group in another department. That change was not fully communicated to the right people. There were a lot of moving pieces. And somebody dropped the ball. We are understaffed or wrongly staffed. Some people refuse to pull their weight. I’m doing the best I can under the circumstances. Things were going just fine until everything fell apart due to factors beyond my control.
Managers tell us this every day. Most of the firefighting (not to mention all the false alarms) seems unavoidable, yet our research shows that the most frequently occurring problems come up repeatedly. The overwhelming majority of the seemingly inevitable problems that vex managers almost always flow from these factors:
- Personnel discontinuity. People come and go. That’s always been true. But employment relationships today are far more short-term and fluid than before in the modern economy. So, you are constantly losing good people. And you are always trying to get new people on board and up to speed. On top of that, one great employee is worth more than three or four, or five mediocre employees. Sometimes you have to go to great lengths to effectively reward, retain, and develop the best employees.
- Constant change is coming at you from every direction. Technology. The markets. The weather. Geopolitics. Micropolitics. Customer requirements, vendor requirements, employee requirements. Change regularly forces rework, often involving many moving parts and, therefore, many counterparts here, there, and everywhere.
- Interdependency. Again, more and more of our work involves many moving parts and, therefore, many counterparts here, there, and everywhere. Most people must rely on many others within and outside their immediate workgroup to do their work.
- Resource constraints. Nowadays, everybody is expected to do more with less. Increasingly, people report that they are making do with tighter resources and longer and more complex supply lines with shorter lead times. Often people find themselves trying to do their jobs with what they feel are insufficient resources.
- Employees are human. Human beings have weaknesses as well as strengths. Humans are not always great at self-management. They have habits, and not always good ones. Not only that, but everybody has bad days. Some people have bad weeks, months, and years. Productivity and quality of work are highly variable, sometimes due to employee performance. On top of all that, humans have attitudes, and not always good ones.
The first person you need to manage every day is yourself. You need to set aside the time every day to manage. I recommend a minimum of an hour a day; think of it as taking a walk every day. Make that your sacrosanct time for managing. During that hour, do not fight fires. Use that hour for working upfront before anything goes right, wrong, or average.
The second person you need to manage every day is everybody else. In an ideal world, you would talk with every direct report every day. You would take that management walk every day with every person. However, if you have more than four or five direct reports, you must make choices every day. Maybe you can’t talk to every person every day.
For your dedicated one-on-one time:
- Set aside an hour a day.
- Concentrate on three or four people per day.
- Prepare in advance and make sure your direct reports prepare too.
- Follow a regular format with each person, customized for that person.
- Always start with top priorities, open questions, and any work in progress.
- Consider holding these conversations standing up, with a clipboard in hand (to keep them quick and focused).
- Don’t do all the talking.
- Don’t let anybody go for more than two weeks without getting together.
- If you manage people who work other shifts, stay late or come in early.
If you manage people in remote locations, conduct your one-on-ones remotely with no less rigor and discipline than your in-person one-on-ones.