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Performance Reviews Don't Have To Be Absolutely Awful

As the end of the year approaches, so do annual performance evaluations. But the process doesn't have to be painful and counterproductive. Here are your problems solved.

[Image: Flickr user Dave Crosby]

The (often dreaded) annual performance review is an inescapable part of working life, right?

Maybe not, according to Donna Morris, Adobe's SVP of People Resources:


Ranking sessions, labels, long-winded appraisals, and conversations that focus on your past are obsolete at Adobe Last year we abolished our annual performance review in favor of lighter-weight check-in conversations that center on ongoing feedback. We don’t have labels, a formal tool, or prescriptive time of year it all has to happen—we just ask people to have conversations.

The result? Morris reports that Adobe's seeing "more genuine conversations" at the company, lowering attrition, and most notably, a saving of 80,000 hours of managers' time a year—which represents a whole lot of freed up mental real estate.

But many still stick to what, for Morris, is an "archaic process." As New York Times columnist Phyllis Korkki notes:

Many businesses feel that they must use formal reviews and rankings to create an objective measurement of performance and goals, so that managers can reward and promote good employees, and give poorly performing ones a chance to improve (while creating a paper trail in case they must be dismissed).

The reviews can take on extreme importance. Jack Welch, the affably dictatorial former chief executive of GE, maintained that employees should be lined up along a three-piece bell curve: the top 20% would get rewarded, the middle 70% would be told how to improve, and the bottom 10% would be discarded. This is called forced or stack ranking; according to an in-depth Vanity Fair report, it's the system that "crippled" Microsofts ability to innovate.

"I wanted to build a team of people who would work together and whose only focus would be on making great software," said Bill Hill, a former manager. "But you can’t do that at Microsoft."

But it's not that the annual performance review is going to cripple every company; only if they're terrible. It's a matter of the contents, context, and subsequent incentives of the review, as No Asshole Rule author and managerial connoisseur Bob Sutton contends. So allow us to review how performance reviews go wrong.

Problem: They have nothing to do with real working life.

If the performance review is "this weird form you fill out every year that has nothing to do with everyday life," then your organization is doing it wrong, Sutton says; like if your boss gives you good feedback (or no feedback) all year and then drops a bad a review on you. When you receive such an unwelcome surprise, Sutton says, "the boss isn't doing his or her job."

The solution: Making feedback a regular thing. Incorporate the "genuine conversations" that Donna Morris prides Adobe on.

Problem: The way "excellent performance" is defined creates perverse incentives.

If "excellent performance" is overly individualistic, then you may be turning your office into a terrarium of reptilian behavior. If "stars" are anointed solely on individual achievement, Sutton says, then you get "backstabbing, stomping on others on the way to the top, and other flavors of dysfunctional internal competition" as a reward.

The solution: Make your definition of excellence more prosocial, and encourage teamwork.

Problem: The review structure has toxic assumptions.

Vanity Fair reporter Kurt Eichenwald said that every current and former Microsoft employee he talked to identified stack ranking as the "most destructive process" inside Microsoft.

"If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, two people were going to get a great review, seven were going to get mediocre reviews, and one was going to get a terrible review," said a former software developer. "It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies."

Consequently, star employees wouldn't want to work with one another, for fear of getting bumped into a lower demographic. This is stupid not only because it hampers innovation, but also for the assumption it makes: that there will be one terrible performer on every team.

The solution: Get rid of stacked ranking.

Hat tip: Work Matters