Monday, October 27, 2008

Employee performance reviews, just say no?

One-sided, negative and intimidating are just a few words that come to mind when thinking about employee performance reviews. The corporate world should just get rid of it says UCLA professor Samuel Culbert in a recent Wall Street Journal article.

“To my way of thinking, a one-side-accountable, boss-administered review is little more than a dysfunctional pretense. It's a negative to corporate performance, an obstacle to straight-talk relationships, and a prime cause of low morale at work. Even the mere knowledge that such an event will take place damages daily communications and teamwork.”

Here are just a few of Culbert’s reasons why he finds performance reviews “ill-advised and bogus” (read all seven in the full WSJ article):

  • Mind-sets are out of sync. Going into a performance review, bosses are generally concerned with improving performance while the subordinate is focused on small issues including compensation, job progression and career advancement. The disconnect puts the review participants at odds, “talking past each other.”
  • Objectivity is “preposterous.” Despite popular belief, performance reviews are not objective. “Where you stand determines what you see,” according to Culbert. It is almost impossible for any assessment to be independent of the evaluator’s motives.
  • “One size fits all” doesn’t fit. No two employees are the same, but performance reviews measure all employees on a predetermined checklist. Pleasing the boss becomes more important than doing a good job.
  • Reviews undermine teamwork. Bosses have all the power during performance reviews. Instead of taking a team approach during the evaluation by asking the subordinate “How are we going to work together as a team?” It’s more like “How are you performing for me?”

The solution - performance previews.

Performance previews are a way to conduct performance reviews that are two-sided with shared accountability. According to Culbert:

“Previews are problem-solving, not problem-creating, discussions about how we, as teammates, are going to work together even more effectively and efficiently than we've done in the past. They feature descriptive conversations about how each person is inclined to operate, using past events for illustrative purposes, and how we worked well or did not work well individually and together.”

As opposed to an annual meeting, previews should be held each time the boss or team member feels the group is not working well together. Previews promote “straight-talk relationships” for those who are ready to step up to the challenge. Instead of using a method that focuses on flaws, previews can identify solutions on how teams can accomplish business goals together.

Culbert believes feedback and trust are essential to the success of performance previews:

“The best you can do for others is to develop a trusting relationship where they can ask for feedback and help when they see the need and feel sufficiently valued to take it.”

Convincing the corporate world to overhaul such a long-standing employee performance review system would take many years and many strong opinions to accomplish. With powerful ideas from scholars like Culbert, a new system focused on teamwork may not be that far off in the distance.

If you’re looking for ways to improve your employee performance reviews, read Culbert’s full WSJ article on how performance previews can improve the way your team works.

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