For most professionals, this is the time of the year when they receive career-defining feedback to set the tone, expectations, and goals for the following year.
In my career, I have received good and not-so-good performance reviews. However, over the years, I have experienced and heard of some that suggest performance reviews are unnecessarily ineffective if not broken in some cases.
Why is something intended to improve a person’s professional results, at times, so impersonal, linear, or ominous? I don’t necessarily have any of the answers for sure. But over the years, I have made some observations that I want you to consider and, thus, inspire you to think about how you manage and deliver meaningful performance reviews.
First, they are usually always annual. This has never made sense to me. Consider professional athletes for a moment. Even average athletes are in a constant state of being coached. And the elites ones even more. Can you imagine a defensive line coach in the NFL only providing feedback and coaching once a year? It would never happen because their athletes are out on the field and engaged in a mission-critical endeavor, performance, or goal. So, why do professional managers try to manage performance once a year? I think it’s crazy. By them being annual, problems fester. I love this analogy and use it often: Yearly performance reviews allow a root canal to develop versus prevention with regular flossing.
Secondly, performance reviews usually focus on a person’s weaknesses. You know the ones, right? “You have to get better at this” or “you have to get better at that.” While improvement is always valid, focusing on a person’s weaknesses in a performance review sets an unnecessarily negative tone.
I was coaching someone whose boss said he could be one of their best client-facing guys last month. He is brilliant, articulate, and does well under pressure. But his performance review was focused and framed around his gaps versus his potential. Instead, why not develop a plan to coach him to be the best client-facing guy in the company? Focusing on a person’s weaknesses diverts attention back to the gap instead of the potential. And we all know that usually produces the wrong mindset and focus. Again, why not draw the professional’s attention to places where they have a natural, intuitive strength to develop, thus making them skilled players using extraordinary power? Too much focus on weaknesses in a performance review makes it a miserable, anxiety-ridden process.
Third, performance reviews often include a pile of ambiguous language. Ugh! I help clients learn to provide clearer and more concise feedback to their teams. In the process, I usually hear them use vague feedback to describe someone on their team. For example, “she is “hyper-passive” or something like that. When someone receives ambiguous feedback, they usually divert and focus their energy on responding. It’s too much work and completely avoidable. Someone could be hyper-passive in every single environment where assertiveness makes them more successful in only a tiny % of their overall job responsibilities. Being “hyper-passive” is only really causing an issue in two or three specific areas.
Some other examples are like, “you’re too aggressive, you’re too assertive, you’re too passive” Well, if you say you’re too passive, people don’t know where and when to apply that. As a result, they might think or invent, “I have to walk into every meeting and loudly voice my point of view.” And so, they need help understanding how to interpret and apply the feedback in the future. Considering the desired future state or direction we are trying to coach people toward usually requires more defined language.
Finally, performance reviews are typically one-directional. When a boss gives feedback to a team member, they may miss out on mutually beneficial relational growth. Does it make sense for a couple to attend therapy, and one of them say, “only give feedback to me?” Of course not. And while the boss/employee relationship isn’t a traditional marriage, one-directional feedback rarely serves both people in any relationship. In the world of performance reviews, there should be a door open to giving feedback in both directions.
Ultimately, these are my observations of a process intended to encourage, inspire, and drive professionals to exceed. Nevertheless, performance reviews sometimes are ineffective and don’t have to be. And while every leader and business culture is slightly different, we can learn from our own observations and feedback from trusted peers and partners.
So, What do you think? What are your observations and experiences with performance reviews?