by Samuel A. Culbert
Monday, April 19, 2010
provided by The Wall Street Journal
It's time to finally put the performance review out of its misery.
This corporate sham is one of the most insidious, most damaging, and yet most ubiquitous of corporate activities. Everybody does it, and almost everyone who's evaluated hates it. It's a pretentious, bogus practice that produces absolutely nothing that any thinking executive should call a corporate plus.
And yet few people do anything to kill it. Well, it's time they did.
Don't get me wrong: Reviewing performance is good; it should happen every day. But employees need evaluations they can believe, not the fraudulent ones they receive. They need evaluations that are dictated by need, not a date on the calendar. They need evaluations that make them strive to improve, not pretend they are perfect.
Sadly, most managers are oblivious to the havoc they wreak with performance reviews. To some extent, they don't know any better: This is how performance reviews have been done, and this is how they will be done. Period.
Here's a simple experiment you can try. Ask yourself: How often have you heard a manager say, "Here is what I believe," followed by, "Now tell me, what do you think?" and actually mean it? Rarely, I bet.
The performance review is the primary tool for reinforcing this sorry state. Performance reviews instill feelings of being dominated. They send employees the message that the boss's opinion of their performance is the key determinant of pay, assignment, and career progress. And while that opinion pretends to be objective, it is no such thing. Think about it: If performance reviews are so objective, why is it that so many people get totally different ratings simply by switching bosses?
No, instead, the overriding message is that the boss's assessment is really about whether the boss "likes" you, whether he or she feels "comfortable" with you. None of this is good for the company unless the boss is some kind of savant genius who can read an employee's talents with laser accuracy -- and then understands what motivates the employee so perfectly that he or she can push just the right psychological buttons to get the employee to use those talents.
Unlikely and even more unlikely.
The Damage Done
At this point, you may be asking: So what? So what if you can't speak your mind to your boss? So what if the performance review forces the boss to focus on an employee's "weaknesses" (since most bosses are told they can't give everyone top grades)? What harm does it really do?
Sadly, it does enormous damage. Forget, for a minute, the damage it does on a personal level -- the way it makes work lives miserable, the way it leaves employees feeling depressed and anxious, the way having to show so much tolerance at work leaves them with too little tolerance at home. Just think about what it does on a corporate level, the enormous amount of time and energy it wastes, and the way it prevents companies from tapping the innovative, outside-the-box thinking that so many employees are capable of. If only, that is, they weren't so afraid.
A Better Way
The good news is that none of this is the way things have to be. The one-sided, boss-dominated performance review needs to be replaced by a straight-talking relationship where the focus is on results, not personality, and where the boss is held accountable for the success of the subordinate (instead of just using the performance review to blame the subordinate for any problems they're having).
In this new system, managers will stop labeling people "good guys" and "bad guys" -- or, in the sick parlance of performance reviews, outstanding performers, average performers, and poor performers to be put on notice. Instead, they'll get it straight that their job is to make everyone reporting to them good guys.
If you're a boss, and your subordinate isn't succeeding, something is broken here. Doing more of the same isn't going to cut it. It's now time for you to ask, "What do you need from me to deliver what we are both on the firing line to produce?" And just as important, it's time for you to listen to the answer.
Asking and listening. Imagine that. It's called a conversation, and it's a rarity in workplaces today. Only by hearing what the other person thinks, and putting that person's actions in the appropriate context, can you actually see what the person is saying and doing -- and how together you can get where the company needs you to go.
Performance reviews won't get you there, because that's just about the boss getting the subordinate to buy into his or her way of thinking. It's a mirror -- not a window into the other person. But take away the performance review and you might actually have straight talk.
Proponents of performance reviews say that the problem isn't the review itself, but poorly trained reviewers. Sorry, but that doesn't fly: The performance review done exactly as intentioned is just as horribly flawed as the review done "poorly." You can't bake a great cake with rotten milk, no matter how skilled the chef. They also say you need performance reviews to protect against lawsuits by laid-off workers. Nonsense: Most performance reviews hurt a company's case because they aren't honest assessments of a worker's performance.
Also, before you start griping about how I don't understand Margaret, the woman in your department who wants to do as little work as possible, or how Tom is so distracted by his life outside the office that he can't get anything done at work, let me stop you and say: I know that not everybody deserves to stay in their jobs. Getting rid of performance reviews doesn't get rid of slackers. Not everybody will leap at the chance to get better and grow.
But everybody deserves the best shot managers can give them. And they can't get that shot with performance reviews.