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Performance Anxiety: Why Reviews Hurt Everybody

Performance reviews majorly demotivate. Here's how to do appraisals that actually help people get better.

Reviewing your employees like they're some new restaurant isn't such a great idea, because if you're trying to motivate people, judging them doesn't quite work.

"People simply think they perform better than other people," HR consultant Mary Jenkins tells the Washington Post. "Unless you rate someone in the highest category, the conversation shifts away from feedback and development to justification."

Post reporter Jena McGregor observes that performance reviews feel central to managers' jobs, to that point that "doing away with reviews might make supervisors seem superfluous," which might be a good fit if you want to be an ultra-iterative, experiment-centric company.

Still, the deshackling of performance reviews is in its embryonic stages: 3% of companies dropped the annual evaluation in 2012, up from 1% in 2011. At this point, dropping the review—where you might grade employees on a scale—is for early adopters, like Medtronic, the $16.2 billion medical technology company.

"Ratings detract from the conversation," former chief talent officer Caroline Stockdale tells the Post. "If an employee is sitting there waiting for the number to drop, they’re not engaged in the conversation, at best. At worst, it can actually make them angry and disaffected for a period of up to a year."

Close Fast Company readers will recall that performance reviews trigger psychological reactance—the rebellious teenager inside of us that doesn't do well with authoritarianism.

Instead of the resentment-stoking reviews, Stockdale's put a quarterly "performance acceleration" process in place. Rather than looking backward, the acceleration faces forward, with future goals, no ratings, and a one page summary—a perfect tool for debugging bad habits.

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Giovanni Orlando]

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  • Jeffery Chapman

    This is very similar to the approach I have taken. I started having supervisors do quarterly Performance Planning and Development meetings that focus primarily on the question, "Where do we go from here?" It is very focus on the employee's development toward their career goals as they align with the required role. The approach is that it doesn't matter where someone is at, there is always a plan for getting where they/we want to go starting from where they are at. Of course, this hope is not eternal and people who are repeatedly not making the minimum required progress are released. In fact, the sooner you act on negative trends the better because they don't change easily.

    It includes a single one page form with 4 simple headings for discussion and notes:
    1. Review goals and progress - review accomplishments and areas requiring attention
    2. Review challenges identified by the employee
    3. Review Supervisor observations/concerns
    4. Develop Action Plan

    I have been gradually simplifying and ultimately eliminating the scoring for the reasons mentioned in this article. They are really only a problematic distraction from the real conversations you need to be having. If you don't have the balls to share what you need to, hiding behind a score isn't going to make someone improve.

    My scoring journey went from 5 point to 4 point to 3 point and then ultimately to 2 possible scores - good enough; not good enough. Obviously, after congratulating them for their strong areas of performance, the most important conversations revolve around what isn't good enough. But keep it positive and focused on moving them along that success trajectory toward the preferred future. Even if there success trajectory requires them to leave the company (but that is another article).

  • sp

    How then do you make salary adjustments that are today base don their score and some graduated scale?

  • Mmcs

    I like the idea of working to ramp up performance discussions making them forward focused rather than a backward glance. There's a good book on employee performance management that also has some other forward-thinking ideas. Here's the link: