Steve Smith, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Member

Steve Smith, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Member

Performance reviews — who needs ’em?

This is hardly a perspective that rocks the boat within HR. In the world of HR technology, the backlash was so extreme that guys like Mike Carden and his crew at Sonar6 were able to build an entire brand around “building performance reviews that don’t suck.”

But, to paraphrase Bart Simpson, getting HR people to hate performance reviews is like making teenagers depressed — it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. That goes for just about everyone in your organization over age 35. But can you believe that the youngest segment of your workforce might actually look forward to performance reviews. They love getting feedback in a formalized, complete-a-self-assessment, talk-to-the-boss kind of way.

Yeah, it just about made my head explode, too. You see, I’m a performance review hater of the old-school variety. I’ve done hundreds of performance reviews over the years. I remember the dark ages of paper processes. I remember the contentious conversations when someone got a 2 percent raise instead of 4 percent. I remember the behind-the-scenes politics. The performance review wasn’t a development exercise. It was an ass-kicking for everyone. And so I said good riddance.

Then I spent many years not doing performance reviews. I believe that performance management is really just management. Talk to your employees on a regular basis, offer direct guidance as appropriate, and schedule specific meetings to talk about them and their professional growth.  This approach worked pretty well — at least with people who are 35 or older. The people who shared the same memories of performance reviews — mainly the Xers and the Boomers — were fine chucking all of it out the window. But the young folks — the dewy-eyed, eager, ambitious Gen Yers — they couldn’t wait for their performance reviews.

At first, I was confused. I even told them, “You’re supposed to hate these things.” Then, I’d have a performance and development conversation with them. I’d say everything that I would have said in a formal review. The difference is that without some tangible record, they seemed to believe that nothing official happened. I’ve got lots of theories about why this is, but I’ll save everyone’s time and just go ahead and blame Facebook.

And that’s one of the reasons I found my way back to formal performance reviews as a business owner. There are other “inside-baseball” reasons — goal alignment, competencies and a bunch of other HR-gobbledygook that actually seems to work. But I’ve also begun to think that it’s possible for the kiddos to teach us oldsters a new way to look at the whole thing. I really believe that the performance review generation gap can close if three things happen:

  1. 1.    The focus is not force ranking, but career development. Performance review haters use force ranking as a proxy for every ass-kicking part of the process. While I think that force ranking actually gets a bad rap, let’s all agree that reviews work better if they are more about how an employee can improve than how an employee does (or doesn’t) measure up.
  • Have an employee who consistently misses deadlines? Build an action plan and set regular check-ins.
  • Have an employee who is trying to work up into a management role? Maybe a little management training is in order.
  • Have a superstar who wants to move up or is getting bored in their current role? Maybe setting up a stretch assignment will get them ready.
  1. 2.    Younger workers can show us how it should be done. It’s not leading by example; it’s really setting an example by following. Younger workers must see that there’s something in it for them and buy in to investing their sweat equity. If they show everyone else that they’re giving it a sincere effort and getting something out of the process, they might change the way their dubious older peers look at reviews.
  2. 3.    The benefits must be clear to everyone. There has to be a benefit to everyone. Organizations must see improved innovation, retention, productivity, growth, revenue and profits. Employees must see career and skills growth. If these benefits don’t occur, the whole thing falls apart. But if no one benefits, the whole thing should fall apart.

High-performing organizations are the result of intentional efforts, not luck. Performance management shouldn’t be a necessary evil. It’s just necessary. Let’s take the evil out of it. Can younger workers show us a better way? I think they can exceed expectations. And when they do, you can bet it’s going on their review.

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