Performance Reviews: Judge or Developer?

There are two main roles a manager plays when providing feedback to an employee: Judge and Developer. We “judge” performance against the agreed to goals/objectives and identify the areas that need development to improve. The results the employee has accomplished are history. They provide a guide to what can be improved. The focus then is on the “how” the person accomplished or didn’t their performance. What skills did they use, what experiences did they rely on, what were their strengths and areas for improvement. Then, reinforce the strengths, develop the other areas.

Of course, when organizations have “values” they want implemented, how well did the employee demonstrate those values in how they accomplished their goals. During a graduate class in Advance Management Training Methodologies, the Professor scanned the nearly 100 students in the auditorium and asked one gentleman to come up and take a seat on the stage next to him. He asked the student to think of the most recalcitrant supervisor he could imagine and gave him a few seconds to do so. Then he told him that the Supervisor hates giving or getting performance reviews and has never been trained in doing them. This Supervisor, he explained, has avoided giving reviews for years. He asked the student if he had this person clear in his mind and emphatically was assured he did. The audience laughed. The Professor stood up, abruptly, removed a metal pistol from his pocket, pointed it directly at the student’s head and said, ” now, tell me exactly how you would do a professional performance review.” Gasps were heard, not the least of which from the student on stage. He stumbled and said he would set goals, with measures, review results against goals and then discuss the outcomes with the employee.” “Then what?” the Professor said, menacingly waving the pistol at him. “Then discuss how he could improve?” he asked, hoping he came up with the right answer.
The professor laughed, turned to the audience and said, “See, it’s not about training.”

Tim Stultz, the CEO of Nanometrics, calls this “Cognitive Management”. Think about what you are about to do, get clear on the reason for it and then make it as simple as possible, with the least over-engineering. Tim’s a Phd Engineer.

The most useful and successful approach I’ve seen in performance reviews is when the supervisor and employee know and agree that the discussion, or series of discussions, is a problem solving session and the problem to solve is how to continually upgrade and improve productivity. Supervisors and employees can do this by:
1) Assuming there is a reasonably clear set of measurable goals that were set early in the time period, the discussion of how well they were met comes first.
2) Reviewing the results to see how they might have been improved would come next.
3) Agreeing on what skills, experiences or resources would be needed to make those improvements follows.
4) Finalizing a plan of development that the employee, his supervisor and the next level up, if appropriate, all agree to would be the final step.
5) Establishing a program for on-going review of results vs. goals and progress vs. development needs would be set up that meets both parties’ needs.

Of course, there is no one way to proceed. The main issue is to make sure both parties agree to a format that encourages problem-solving–not blaming, justifying raises or lack thereof and not with any hidden agendas on either side. A good manager is measured by how well he/she can develop their team members to perform at the highest possible levels.

Change performance reviews to productivity problem solving sessions. Work together to help the entire organization improve, person by person. The key to helping people to want to excel is to make sure you help them maintain or improve their levels of self-esteem. Discussions based on mutual dignity and respect go a long way towards establishing that the self esteem of the employee is key to the manager. Everybody works harder, smarter, more creatively and productively when they feel the job they are doing helps them feel good about themselves. The opposite is equally true. Fear of failing is far more detrimental to the individual and organization than taking some risks to succeed. People will rarely take risks to succeed when they are spending their time trying to not fail, to not “get caught” or are on edge, regularly, about being second-guessed. If somebody is not able to do their job, don’t try to prove it to them, be direct and have them move on to a job at which they can be successful. If they have the capacity to succeed, the job of the manager is to treat them in a way to get the most out of them.
From long ago theories like Theory X vs Y to some of today’s same ideas like “Multipliers”, the managers who can create an environment in which their people thrive and grow are the most valuable to any organization. Far more valuable than those who can manage to avoid mistakes.

We’ve worked with many organizations helping to shape a process that encourages productivity and problem solving. It usually entails minimizing the “rating” elements and the forced distributions of raises and rewards. Managers are given more leeway in allocating rewards as they would with any other asset allocation. They are asked to establish any raise or lack thereof based on the contributed value of the individuals in question, not to fit into an abstract distribution. They are given a “pot” of money, and they need to utilize it as a tool in enhancing the ability to grow their employees’ strengths and skills.

This latest wave of doing away with Performance reviews is moving, in most part, in the right direction. Hopefully, it isn’t an abandonment of a system not being implemented well and is a way of finding how to get managers to take on the responsibility of developing all of the talent for whom they’ve been allowed to lead.

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