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Managers, it’s time to give up on the annual review once and for all

There’s plenty of evidence that shows annual reviews don’t improve an employee’s performance. A workplace expert suggests alternatives that companies can adopt instead.

Managers, it’s time to give up on the annual review once and for all
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Back in the day, managers and employees across a wide variety of industries and employer sizes lived and died by the annual review. But not only are they a lot of work for everyone involved, they aren’t even particularly useful. Many organizations also provide little or no guidance to managers on how to conduct a performance review, which means that individual experiences can vary tremendously.

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What’s a multigenerational organization to do? Many have decided to supplement or replace annual reviews with more frequent, ongoing feedback. I think that this is a positive step, and will lead to better outcomes.

If you’re ready to remix the feedback you and your fellow managers offer to your multigenerational employees, here are some strategies to consider.

1. Make sure that you give explicit instructions

I often tell many older employees who have younger staff that giving useful feedback starts with explicit instructions. A law firm partner once complained to me that he had tried to support a young associate’s career by bringing her with him to a client meeting, but she blew it. When I asked what happened, he said with disdain, “She talked.”

According to this partner, a junior associate absolutely should not speak in a meeting with clients. When I asked him if he had told her that in advance, he said, “She should have known not to talk.” In this instance, the failure is on the partner, not the associate.

2. Conduct one-on-one check-ins

Adobe is one company that has abolished annual performance reviews and decided to replace them with “check-ins,” frequent meetings between employees and managers. One-on-ones are hardly a new concept, but if more managers actually held them, I’m willing to bet that productivity and engagement will improve tremendously.

Quite simply, one-on-one check-ins signify to employees that they matter. In our busy high-tech world, so many leaders have gotten away from the necessary nurturing of relationships. I advise managers to go back to basics and get to know people. A little personal attention can go a long way.

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3. Have conversations about an employee’s future

Some organizations have a formalized variation on one-on-one check-ins that they call “stay conversations.” The purpose is to discuss an employee’s future at the organization.

I once sat next to a young professional on an airplane who worked in sales for a major beverage company. When I told him about my work, he identified himself as an ambitious and frustrated millennial. He asked for advice on talking to his manager about how he could advance more quickly.

“I keep asking my boss what else I need to do to get ahead,” he told me, “and my boss keeps saying, ‘Be patient. Your career is a marathon, not a sprint.’ “And I understand that,” he said. “But can’t he at least tell me what mile of the marathon I’m on?”

That sentiment makes sense to me, and this is why stay conversations can be so valuable. When was the last time you talked to your top talent about the future? So many people are told in their exit interviews, “Why are you leaving? We had big plans for you!” And they reply, “Why didn’t you tell me that?”

4. Use technology when it makes sense

Some organizations, such as IBM and Warby Parker, have replaced their annual performance reviews with apps that provide employees with ongoing feedback. PwC even has an on-demand system where employees can request fine-tuning whenever they want it: The app overlays a visual that compares past results with current ones.

Law firm Reed Smith recently developed a feedback app based on suggestions from the firm’s own associates. Casey Ryan, the firm’s global head of legal personnel said, “We decided to provide the app as an addition, not a replacement, to our annual review process so associates can essentially have the best of both worlds. An annual review is valuable, but it could be about a piece of work from 12 months ago. The goal of the app is to offer an opportunity for partners and associates to talk more regularly and in real time about case and work developments. Particularly in a highly demanding and stressful job, the app is a way to both raise the performance culture and make a big firm feel smaller.”

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5. Practice The MBWA technique

Another simple and effective management strategy and feedback opportunity is the decades-old MBWA technique–“Management by Wandering Around.” This is as easy as it sounds, you literally walk around and chitchat with your team. One Harvard Business School study found that managers with the lowest levels of respect are those known for shutting themselves in their offices.

Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace

If you choose to implement MBWA, remember to be inclusive in your wandering. Be careful not to visit only the areas where gen-X employees sit, or chat only with outgoing personality types, or longer-tenured staff of a certain level. Most importantly, let people know explicitly that your goal is chatting and listening, not checking on them. One nonprofit executive director told me that he tried this strategy when he first took on the job, and employees “almost passed out” when he came into their cubicles and said he wanted to talk. They thought they were about to be reprimanded or fired.

The annual review has a long history, and because of that, many companies continue to adopt it year after year without assessing its effectiveness. Your employees do want feedback–but chances are they don’t want you to deliver it in an overly formal, stilted, and outdated way.


This article is adapted from The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace by Lindsey Pollak. It is reprinted with permission from Harper Business. 

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