Performance Reviews. What if….

It’s that subject again.  The one we keep talking about solving but so far haven’t managed to.

Performance reviews.

I have some thoughts running through my head about the subject, so I am blogging to help me make sense of them.  Mostly, these are questions I am still thinking through.  Comments, ideas and feedback are welcome.

Take a look at the performance review process in many organisations.  The forms might vary a bit, the language too, but lots of them have fundamental similarities.  There are documents to complete, SMART objectives, a bit in which you talk about personal development, examples to collate, some sort of rating system (apart from where I work – we chucked out that particular poisonous piece of chintz a while ago).  The approaches are similar, but organisations are not.  So why do so many appraisals, performance reviews, annual whatevers, look and feel the same, wherever the place?

What if we designed performance reviews specifically for our own organisation instead?  Our challenges, our problems, our very own elephants in the room?  The futures that we want to create?

When we talk about alignment in the performance management space, normally we are talking about alignment of objectives to the corporate strategy.  We have this quaint little notion that the senior team get their objectives, and then set some for their team, and so on and so on.  Objectives, aligned to the vision and the strategy then cascade like a beautiful waterfall throughout the organisation so that everyone understands their place within it and their own contribution.  But cascades don’t work.

So maybe we should align performance reviews with something else instead.

What if everyone in the organisation had the same objectives?  Or even just one? That we just picked the one thing that was most important to us, at our place, and focused on only  that – with a built in assumption that grown adults for the most part know what is expected of them every day or have job description at the very least, and we can just manage them against that if needs be?

Most organisations have a thing.  Something that people talk about.  If only we could change that.  Maybe the culture is too risk averse.  Maybe there is too much hierarchy or burearcracy.  Perhaps everyone works in silos or the communication is terrible.  What if we changed the process or set everyone’s objectives to work on just that?  What difference would that make, at our place?

For example.  Let’s assume that your particular organisational challenge is that old silo working issue.  A lack of effective information flowing around.  What if the performance review process was redesigned with that in mind?  A requirement that feedback is public, that objectives are shared in a working out loud fashion, that any objectives that are set are agreed by other departments or managers.  What if the review system made it formally everyone’s responsibility and that is what you would be reviewed upon at the end of next year?

What if we stopped doing SMART objectives, because actually formulating objectives tightly is the opposite of empowerment and autonomy.  And perhaps some of the words that SMART stands for are not transformative.  Realistic objectives are nice and safe.  But they might not change your organisation.  Maybe we should set something that isn’t very measurable or achievable and see where that gets us instead.

What if we stopped separating the work objectives and the development objectives and calling them different names and having them within different parts of the form, and recognised that people are whole?  That the ‘personal development plan’ bit and operational objectives bit are intertwined and mutually supporting and therefore should be so in any performance review?

We get criticised when we change the process itself.  Performance review systems and processes often get tweaked, usually to solve a small inherent problem, but without tackling the big one.  Too many managers selecting the middle rating?  Let’s change the number of boxes to four instead of five.  That will solve it.

But what  if we deliberately set out to change the system on a regular basis?  Organisations, culture, technology.   They all change.  Some at a scarily fast pace.  So why not deliberately change your performance management system on a regular basis too?  Not fiddling around the edges, but deliberately changing it in order to respond to those changes taking place around us, with the intent on keeping things fresh, introducing new focus. To make sure that the type of conversations that take place are advancing.

What if we just stopped trying to assign labels to people within a review system, because that then becomes the focus of the discussion rather than the quality of the dialogue?  You are a three. You are green.  You are fully achieved.  Because no rating system can ever capture a year of performance so let’s not even try.

If there is a rating system, what if the employee rated their line manager instead of their line manager rating them?  Or the employee rates the company, the culture, the senior team.  Their own self?  And that was the rating that counted and was recorded.

What if performance related pay meant not operational performance but how much an employee has learned during the course of the year instead?

What would the consequences be?  Intended or otherwise.

What if, what if, what if.

I’m still thinking.


5 thoughts on “Performance Reviews. What if….

  1. This is an area where I think the private (and public) sectors can learn from the Charity/voluntary sector. In many Voluntary Sector organisations they have a thing called “supervision” (horrible name but let’s ignore that for a moment). It’s a regular, usually 4-6 weekly, meeting between a team member and their manager, and is a relatively informal discussion along the lines of “How’s it going?” – covering work, personal and other issues. Key points and actions are recorded. It’s part of the culture and because of its origins (see below) it’s designed to be supportive, not a stick to beat people with. I’m not saying it’s a perfect solution but it beats many formalised performance review schemes hands down.

    (The system originally came from social work and was a way in which less experienced staff could discuss their caseload with more experienced ones, not just the technical solutions to a problem but also the emotional impact and support they themselves needed when dealing with often traumatic or disturbing situations)

  2. Great blog.
    I was taught, drilled into, no more than four overarching objectives.
    Each objective had to serve an organisational focus (your one objective)
    Development goals were the focus; the task goals were part of the job.; you had to do them.
    Your contribution to org objectives was evaluated on how much you had grown and developed.
    It was a given that your team would meet their core operational standards
    How you went about achieving your results was the focus of the discussion, what you had learned, what you aspired to.
    Not what you had done; that was discussed on a regular basis.
    Quarterly reflections took place, focussing on growth, building on learning from mistakes and exploring what would stretch the individual in the coming quarter.
    Salary awards were informed by these reviews but not dictated by.
    The rating system said something like:
    Doesn’t fully meet the requirements – under performance review
    Doesn’t fully meet the requirements – new into role –
    Meets the requirements – that was what we all aimed for.
    Rating systems are a good differentiator if the boundaries are clear and not used in any perjorative sense.
    I remember having an appraisal for a team member, of which I was so proud,. it was an honest conversation, and documented with integrity. It was given back to me by the grandparent – “your comments don’t relate to the rating”. I had to go back to my team member and lower the rating. I thought more realistically in future, and actually, my team respected me, because I shared I what I had learned (as did the person involved who suggested it).
    Minimal bureaucracy made it work.
    Top down consistency made it work.
    Often these processes seem to drift/shift disappear towards the top of the organisation and that’s the systemic failure.

  3. Hi Gemma,

    Great Post – very thought provoking! Having been in corporate life for most of my career, I’ve probably seen as many performance review systems as you have, most of which are not used consistently by the people that use them and by and large do not help to affect change or dramatic improvement in individual, team or business performance.

    I have found that regular 121’s, honest feedback (both way), development discussion and actions as well as less regular 360 feedback from peers, ‘customers’ and leadership team is much more effective in improving performance.

    As for objectives. You pose some really interesting points, particularly the company-wide objective. I quite like that! Everyone measured against one ‘Flag on the Hill’ – I shall ponder more on that one!


    • Thanks for commenting Mark. I’ve never seen the ‘one objective’ thing done so it is hard to say what the implications or consequences would be. But like you, I have seen so many different types of systems over they years, and none of them have been high impact – so just maybe it would be worth a risk to find out. I am still pondering!

  4. Pingback: The demise of the performance review? | People Stuff

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