When Performance Reviews Underperform

If you let subordinates select their own performance criteria, most of the time they will make the wrong choice. Get the best out of your employees by creating effective, high-quality performance criteria documents — here's how.

Many people suffer from performance anxiety when it comes to giving or receiving employee performance reviews. By inadvertently colluding to get through the process as quickly and painlessly as possible, managers and subordinates squander a great opportunity to positively affect performance, productivity, and results for their company, as well as help both the manager and the subordinate succeed individually.

These observations come as no surprise to either manager or subordinate. So why the avoidance?

There are a number of reasons:

  1. Performance reviews seem like a distraction from actually getting work done. Giving and receiving performance reviews is so far removed from the daily tasks of both managers and subordinates, that neither have much comfort or confidence that they will be done well or in a useful manner.
  2. For performance reviews to work, subordinates need to be willing to be held accountable and managers need to be willing to hold them accountable. This indicates to both that even more effort outside of each person's area of competence will need to be expended.
  3. Prior experience with the uselessness of performance reviews from prior jobs causes each to believe that this occasion will be no different.
  4. Managers who have had bad experiences receiving performance reviews don't want to do the same to their subordinates.
  5. Subordinates who take things too personally and are too easily upset make managers want to avoid the emotional fallout that can come from a critical review.
  6. Managers may be reluctant to criticize a subordinate if the manager feels culpable in having not articulated a clear understandable goal, assigned tasks clearly, or provided necessary training.

The biggest problem for both managers and subordinates when performance reviews are done poorly is that in the end, both people will nod agreeing to some course of action going forward that is not clear to either. When subordinates do not have a clear picture of their manager's expectations of what success looks like, they will make up their own definitions of success.

In the vast majority of cases, what that subordinate defines as success will differ significantly from his manager's. This could potentially encourage the subordinate to work very hard towards the wrong goals. The subordinate is likely to focus on a narrow portion of what is important to his manager and his company, or he may set goals that are completely out of alignment with those of his employer.

Stephen Covey has said that too many people spend their careers climbing a ladder to what they think will bring them success, only to discover that their ladder has been on the wrong wall.

What is the solution?

There is an old saying, "Where there is a will there is a way." In truth, its converse, "Where there is a way, there is a will," is perhaps more to the point. Too often subordinates that can't clearly see a way, do not have the will to move. This is especially true when in the past they have taken initiative, done things the best way they knew how, only to be dinged "Monday morning quarterback style", by a manager who had not been as clear in his direction beforehand as he is in his criticism later.

Alternatively, when the way is clear, people find the will to act. That may explain the trend in executive coaching (especially the model developed by Marshall Goldsmith) to make any prescriptions for professional-development specific, observable, and measurable to both the coach and his/her stakeholders who have provided input.

By this logic, the manager has a responsibility to provide the subordinate with specific, observable, and measurable guidelines for performance. Although managers and subordinates may look at a goal through different eyes, they need to eventually agree upon it in a manner that leaves very little to the imagination.

Hands-on experience with performance reviews

At one point, Billy Pittard — media architect; President, Pittard Inc.; Founder and past CEO, Pittard Sullivan — found himself responsible for over 70 employees' performance reviews. It was a daunting task and he confesses that his performance at conducting those reviews was not very good. As pointed out above, both he and the employees had plenty of reasons to avoid them.

But Pittard realized that he had a wonderful opportunity to turn a daunting task into a valuable process that would make my company better. Doing so many performance reviews gave him the opportunity to study how performance reviews really worked, and to figure out how to make them better.

One big breakthrough was to make sure that each employee really understood what mattered most in his or her performance. Pittard came to realize that almost everyone really does want to do a great job — but if he didn't make sure each person knew exactly what the company considered to be a great job, then each individual would make up their own criteria. Guaranteed these would not be best for the company.

Without a clear understanding of how their performances would be evaluated, employees were coming to performance reviews believing that they had done a great job, but when Pittard looked at their performance and saw that it was out of alignment with company goals, it was a lose-lose situation. The company wasn't getting the performance it needed and employees were told that their performance was not good despite doing what they truly believed was a good job. This can be terribly demoralizing to an employee.

Eventually, Pittard learned how to avoid this situation by providing high-quality documentation of specific performance criteria to each employee. He made sure employees understood and agreed with the specific criteria for their performance, and he faithfully followed those documents as the measure for their performance when review time came around.

A carefully crafted performance criteria document should cover the full spectrum of what is needed in the employee's performance. The foundation of a performance criteria document should be the company's values and goals. When employees know their performance will be evaluated by how well they maintain those values and goals, they become very serious about adhering to them. It is no small job to identify the company's goals and values, and it's a very good idea to have the employees contribute to this identification.

In a nutshell, performance criteria documents provide a very strong mechanism for nurturing and reinforcing the company's values and goals while providing very clear guidelines for each individual employee's performance.

Unlike job descriptions, each employee's performance criteria will have a lot in common with everyone else's because they are all based upon the company's values and goals. But each position's specific performance criteria should vary according to their role. Different roles will have varying emphases on the different values.

For example, Pittard explained that one might perceive reviewing a graphic designer's work as a rather subjective process, and it probably would be unless you break it down into discrete components. Here are some aspects of a designer's work that can be addressed separately: use of color, typography, composition, originality, adherence to project briefs, etc. Pittard remembers one designer whose work was very good, but by deliberately evaluating discrete aspects of her work he was able to point out that she was using a very similar color palette over and over. Thus Pittard was able to provide a helpful insight to improve her future performance. Since Pittard was using a comprehensive performance criteria document to guide the review, his criticism of her use of color was taken in a larger context in which she had many strengths. This helped her accept his criticism as constructive feedback, and therefore use it to improve her work.

A point I can't stress strongly enough is that performance criteria documents should be detailed so that both manager and subordinate will be able to recognize success when it is achieved.

For example, one might perceive reviewing a graphic designer's work as a rather subjective process, and it probably would be unless you break it down into discrete components. Here are some aspects of a designer's work that can be addressed separately: use of color, typography, composition, originality, adherence to project briefs, etc. I remember one designer whose work was very good, but by deliberately evaluating discrete aspects of her work I was able to point out that she was using a very similar color palette over and over. Thus I was able to provide a helpful insight to improve her future performance. Since I was using a comprehensive performance criteria document to guide the review, my criticism of her use of color was taken in a larger context in which she had many strengths. This helped her accept my criticism as constructive feedback, and therefore use it to improve her work.

Another thing Pittard noticed from his days of doing not-so-great performance reviews is that without detailed points for evaluation, there tended to be a lack of balance in the reviews. There always seemed to be too much focus on one area while other areas were neglected. The employee's total performance needs to be considered, and a detailed performance criteria document does just that.

This is particularly helpful when an employee is doing well in most areas, but is having problems in one aspect. When employees know that their review will cover the full spectrum of their performance, it's easier to accept criticism in one specific area. It keeps the review in balance, and prevents a certain criticism from dominating the review. The employees walk away from the review feeling good about their abilities, and feeling capable of improving the areas that elicited critical feedback.

It's important for the manager to keep in mind the purpose of performance reviews in the first place. If you're not careful, performance reviews can be taken as a look at past performance for which the employee expects to be either castigated for doing poorly or rewarded with a raise. But looking back is not what a performance review should be about. Instead, the right perspective would be to ask "what information can I provide this employee that will help him or her reach a higher level of performance in the future?" Certainly you look back to develop that feedback, but the focus should be about the future.

A raise or promotion shouldn't be a reward for past performance, but fair compensation for future accomplishment. And one of the best guides and vehicles for making sure those future accomplishments occur are effective performance criteria documents which form the foundation for any successful performance review.

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