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.


It’s my performance review…..

It’s my performance review on Monday.  One of my friends said this to me at the weekend.  The tone of voice was disdainful.  The FFS at the end merely implied.

When you work in HR, people talk to you about their work all the time.  I quite like it.  I especially like to hear from people on the receiving end of the people stuff that I do, so to speak.

I’ve got to fill in a bloody form in advance about what I do.  Shouldn’t my manager actually know that already? And it is called a performance management meeting.  My performance doesn’t need managing.  What am I, 12?


But I wasn’t surprised at anything she had to say.  My first thought was that her manager was probably looking forward to it about as much as she was.  Which clearly wasn’t all that much at all.

Here’s the thing. Lots of HR departments don’t like performance reviews either.  They make us become something that we don’t really want to be; all about compliance.  We monitor how many have been completed, the scores that have been attributed.  But for HR, this reduces the conversation with people managers to being all about the what have you done and the when can I expect.  A percentages game.  And a completed form just tells you precisely nothing about quality, only quantity.  Anyone can do a crappy review.

So in the typical performance review approach, we have something that all of the parties involved have an issue with.  How did it get to this?  I can say with all certainty this is not limited to my friends organisation.  It is everywhere.

Performance meetings, appraisals, annual reviews, 121s.  Call them what you will. They should be a good thing.  Positive. A chance, every so often, to step outside of the operational day to day stuff, and just talk. Talking and sharing. Feedback, learning, what is going well and what is not.  A look back and a look forward.  Not about the form but the person.  A conversation between two people; the most impactful relationship that the employee has on their satisfaction at work.  These are not difficult concepts.  But we have made them so.

So why is the annual review so reviled?   There are many reasons.  Sometimes it is the process itself. It has been made too complex, or includes something as awful as stack ranking.   Sometimes it is a training issue.  Often, I have found it comes down to one simple thing.  We aren’t that good at having meaningful conversations at work.

Oh, we can talk about the agenda and the project plan.  The latest customer complaint and product development roadmap. An update on the financials and just how is that email marketing campaign working out?  Even the price of the coffee in the vending machine. Surface stuff.  Day to day operational stuff.   But personal stuff?  Not so much.

For all the criticisms made of it, to get rid of the performance review, we need to replace it with something better. There lies part of the problem; we haven’t really got anything to replace it with, so we keep plodding on, doing what we have always done. For the most part, what you need to replace formalised performance review processes with, is maturity.  Maturity of leadership, maturity of conversation.

And that is much harder than filling out a form.