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Kill the Performance Review! (or maybe not)

"Performance Reviews: Get Rid of Them" – www.theage.com.au 15/02/15 

"Businesses Should Boycott Performance Reviews" – www.afr.com 05/03/14 

"Performance Reviews: Is it Time to Kill Them?" – www.executivestyle.com.au 30/06/14 


The headlines say it all really – the performance review has been under sustained attack for the last 5 years or so, at least partly inspired I suspect by the publication of "Get Rid of the Performance Review!" by Samuel Culbert and Lawrence Rout, 2010.

When I first started seeing these headlines appear, the HR Nerd part of me was deeply offended! I had, after all, spent much of my professional life encouraging and coaching team leaders and managers to be diligent in their review of team members' performance – to set clear expectations aligned with the business/organisation's vision and strategy, to support and equip their team members to achieve those expectations and to build a culture of accountability by consistently and appropriately reviewing performance. 

Now everyone is telling me that it's been a waste of time, that it's not worthwhile?!?! Not only have I been doing it all wrong, but I've been encouraging and coaching others to also do it all wrong?!?

​But dig a bit deeper than the headlines and all is not quite as it seems. Indeed, almost without exception the many articles and blogs published with these attention-grabbing headlines reinforce the merits of some process of performance review. They continue, for example, to acknowledge the value of setting expectations, measuring performance against an established standard, regularly discussing progress, holding people accountable, identifying and recognising success, addressing areas of poor performance and discussing opportunities for improvement. 

So why the spectacular headlines then? Call me a cynic, but my personal conclusion is that "It's Time to Kill the Performance Review!" is more likely to sell more books, more newspapers, attract more followers etc… than a more accurate though less attention-grabbing headline along the lines of "Performance Reviews – Do Them Well!". 

So then, if we accept that there's plenty to be gained by retaining some form of performance review process, just what do we need to do or not do in order to optimise their value? Here are a few tips based on my own experiences (in no particular order): 

  1. Set clear expectations – Ensure your employees know precisely what is expected of them, both in a task/target sense and a behavioural sense. 
  2. Align expectations to vision and strategy – If our expectations are not aligned to the vision and strategy of the business, why are we here? If your business does not have a clear vision and strategy, go back to the start – do not pass go do not collect $200! 
  3. Measure stuff – Some people in my experience get a bit obsessed about measuring stuff. That's great, but not always possible. My philosophy is simple – if it's meaningful and you can measure it, great, do it. If it's still meaningful yet you can't easily measure it (eg. the value of "working as part of a team") – at least describe the desired behaviour in detail – don't remove meaningful criteria from the process simply because it's difficult to measure. 
  4. Measure (or at least describe) the right stuff – At an individual level, you need to assess people's performance against things they can impact. Linking the forklift drivers' individual performance to annual sales, for example, just won't work. 
  5. Beware competitive cultures – There is in my view such a thing as healthy competition, but it's a fine balance between healthy and unhealthy competition. Establishing systems that, for example, pit sales people against one another can be destructive beyond the short-term. 
  6. Equip others – It's a simple fact that the skills entailed in effectively setting expectations, reviewing performance, acknowledging success and constructively addressing below-par performance do not come naturally to everyone. Indeed, I often find that many team leaders and managers become more anxious when managing performance issues than the staff themselves! Acknowledge that those you are entrusting with this important responsibility may need coaching support or formal training. If your business does not already have a culture of setting expectations and holding each other accountable, the change will need to be managed effectively at all levels. 
  7. Involve others – If you're in the process of reviewing/implementing a performance review process, seek the views of others across the business in order to improve the chances of success: what should we measure?, who should assess?, individual and/or team reviews?, linked to remuneration?. 
  8. It's a two-way street – In keeping with the "involve others" theme, ensure your review processes allow and encourage two-way conversation – it can be a great opportunity for management to receive feedback and access valuable ideas for improvement. 
  9. It's not a yearly event – Reviewing performance is a daily management responsibility. Sure, we might do something a bit more formal a couple of times a year, but the process of setting expectations, offering support, evaluating performance, recognising achievement, addressing sub-par performance, identifying and addressing training needs must be a daily focus of team leaders and managers – if they are not doing this, what are they doing, and are they truly team leaders and managers? 
  10. Review your system and processes as the business evolves – The system and process of review that might be appropriate for a small, start-up business is generally not the same as that which is appropriate for a large, established business. Similarly, businesses without an established culture of review/accountability may need to start off simply and gradually add value to the process as staff comfort and management capability develops over time. 

So there you have it. A bit less glamorous headline perhaps, but an important one nonetheless: "Performance Reviews – Do Them Well!".

Are You Prepared To Be Less Of A D*ckhead To Be A ...
Hi, I'm Greg, and I'm a Perfectionist

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