Management Information

The Truth About Performance Reviews

Now that it is January, many of you are putting together, or have just finished putting together your annual Performance Appraisals for your staff. Feedback on performance is certainly one of the most critical aspects of personnel development and one that deserves to be taken very seriously. But after 25 years of managing people I am going to finally confess how I feel about the whole process.

I HATE Performance Appraisals. I hate giving them. I hate receiving them.

Whew! I feel better getting that off my chest.

Some of you may feel that there is an incongruity between my statement that feedback is critical in development and my disdain for Performance Appraisals. You would be correct in that feeling if there were any real relationship between feedback and most of our current Performance Appraisal systems. But it is that lack of relationship between feedback and Performance Appraisals that feeds my disdain. Indeed, annual Performance Appraisals have now become just another task to be completed and crossed off the list of most managers, rather than being a vehicle for employee development. And while Performance Appraisals and even the Performance Appraisal systems are noble ideas, they continually fail to hit the mark when it comes to delivering quality feedback and growth targets for employees.

Personally I have received 25 Performance Appraisals in my career. I can count on one hand those that provided me with any real help. But I received numerous reviews that were clear indications that my boss did not consider the process important. For example, one year I received a Performance Appraisal that had every category (about 18 of them) marked with the highest possible marks. However, there was not a word written on the rest of the review. I later discovered that the Admin Assistant of the Vice President had written the review.

In my very first Performance Appraisal several areas were identified for me to improve my performance. One specific item was a report that I had produced each month. In the review I was told that the report had been incorrect for the entire year. When I asked why I wasn't told sooner, the response was "That's what Performance Appraisals are for".

On another occasion I was asked to provide input for the review. That is not an unusual request and I complied by providing insights on key objectives and skills. My boss called me to explain that my input was incomplete. I realized that I was not "providing input" but rather I was writing the review. As an act of rebellion I rewrote the review giving myself the top mark in every category and justified the ratings in glowing, verbose language. To prove my point (that no one really read or cared about the review) I left several sentences horribly incomplete, and even included a "joke" in one category. The review was later presented for me to sign, approved by my boss and his boss, with not one word changed.

Those are just examples, and it would not be hard for me to go on. But why would I hate giving Performance Appraisals?

Simply put, our Performance Appraisal systems are trying to serve too many masters. No system can be a success when it is trying to please and serve everyone. As it is today, Performance Appraisals are not only used for employee development, but also for salary increases, bonuses, promotion opportunities, to avoid lawsuits and so on. The simple truth is that certain employees have a higher ceiling than others. They have more talents, skills, and potential and we owe it to them to help them develop their talents. That SHOULD be the purpose of the performance appraisal. Salary increases, bonuses, etc. should be based on an individuals contribution to the organization, and not their potential. Until we learn to separate those items we will continue to confuse performance with potential.

What specifically is wrong with Performance Appraisals today?

Performance Appraisals for most companies are completed for all employees within the same 2 or 3- week timeframe. This was intended to allow managers to do honest and fair assessments of their employees by allowing them to compare employee performance at exactly the same moment for every employee. In reality, it forces the manager to stack rank their employees and then rush through the Performance Appraisal process to justify those rankings.

Since most appraisals are completed in the same timeframe, the reviewer often either gets too tired to provide useful feedback, or gets writers block. Reviews end up looking like cookie cutter documents with similar wording, strengths, and weaknesses. It's difficult to provide honest, detailed feedback when you are writing your 10th Performance Appraisal of the week.

Performance Appraisals are used as a crutch to document performance issues that should have been addressed throughout the entire year. If we as managers do our job and provide feedback to our employees throughout the year, in a timely and helpful manner, then there should be almost nothing to document in the appraisal.

There is a myth of objectivity that surrounds reviews. It's a myth because so many of the categories on reviews are clearly subjective. And even those categories that are objective should be subject to scrutiny. Clearly if John produces 10 widgets per month, and Sally only produces 8 then John is the better performer. Unless of course I always give my toughest widgets to Sally because of her attention to detail. And her widgets always have 100 perfectly moving parts while John's only have 35.

Last, but certainly not least is the employees perception. Survey after survey indicates that 80% of the employees believe that their performance is above average. When we tie Performance Appraisals into salary increases and bonuses instead of development we do not strengthen the employees performance, instead we put them on the defensive as they compare themselves to their peers.

So what is the answer? As a manager, there is little that you can actually do to change the system. What you can do is understand the dynamics and multiple purposes or Performance Appraisals and ensure that your employees receive their feedback on a consistent basis outside of the annual review.

If you are a leader in your organization, it's time to step back and realize that the Performance Appraisal process cannot serve the company well when it tries to serve it's current smorgasbord of functions. It's time to formally separate a process that rewards performance (raises) from one that is used to develop an individuals potential. Employee development and employee performance are not the same thing. Let's recognize that and treat them differently.

David Meyer, owner of Coaching for Tomorrow, has more than 25 years of management and leadership experience, having worked for companies such as Nobil Shoes, McDonough, Allied Stores, MCI and Nextel Communications. His mantra, "You Win With People" is based on the deep-seated belief that hiring, developing, and promoting the right people can lead to organizational and financial success. As a management and leadership coach, David works to instill that same passion in his clients by helping them understand the importance of strong leadership, strong teamwork, and strong players.

David has a Bachelor's in Business Administration from Elmhurst College and has been certified by both ACTION International as a Business Coach and the Coach Training Alliance. He also has received his CTM from Toastmasters. He is an Officer in the Denver Coach Federation and a facilitator/trainer for the Coach Training Alliance and ACTION International of Colorado. He is also a co-author of the book Creating Workplace Community: Motivation.

Married with two adult daughters, David is active in his local Kiwanis club and Crossroads Community Church. He enjoys reading, golf, scuba diving, and Civil War

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