Performance Reviews & Poop: Five tips to break the stinky habit once and for all
HR’s irresistible attraction to performance reviews and evaluations, ratings, and grades reminds me of my dog, Baxter. No matter how many times I tell him to quit eating deer droppings, he simply can’t resist. I scold him and shoo him away from the newest pile. But as soon as I turn my back, he’s back at it again. It’s what he does. Complaints about performance evaluations are nothing new. Employees think the process is demeaning. Managers and supervisors find them burdensome and ineffective. Lawyers tell us the forms work against us in court. So, we throw up our hands and declare we’re done with them. But before long, we return to the same ritual. Just like Baxter, it’s what we do.
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New approaches have failed too.
Most of the companies declaring revolution have no idea what to do in place of the status quo. They adopt some sort of hybrid approach. They conduct live experiments — on real people in real organizations. There are clear and obvious design flaws. And as a result, most of these trial programs fail. The most popular new approach to performance evaluations is presented as both simple and organic. Train and encourage managers to give real-time feedback to direct reports. Provide it continuously throughout the year with an emphasis on “performance achievement.” Stop saving corrective counsel for annual awkward showdowns.
But wait — let’s backup.
Talking with direct reports about how they’re doing is already implied. It’s called being a boss. Training managers and employees in the fundamentals of routine tactical communication is wonderful. Yet it hardly takes the place of an annual strategic summary discussion. And at a more pragmatic level, there’s a debate on what to do about capturing ongoing organic conversations. Some advocate no records, suggesting that documentation is a “ding on a record” and it works against behavioral change. How will we know if — or when — conversations have taken place? And in the end, what does all this routine talking really mean anyway? Is it any wonder why so many are opting to retain a foothold in the old grading ritual? Sure, daily coaching interactions are important to promoting behavioral change. But ask yourself: Is an increase here sufficient to eliminate the need for something more summative?
Ugh, here we go again.
Most companies leading the charge for change don’t really think so. When we get a glimpse of their high-profile “revolutionary” replacement systems for performance evaluations, it becomes clear they’ve hedged their bets with some sort of hybrid approach. Sure, ongoing conversations are encouraged. Take a closer look. You’ll find that the act of evaluating remains alive and well. They blur rating categories but still have them. They eliminate grades but cling to numbers. They abandon numbers but substitute descriptions. They shorten evaluation sessions but still have them. Some attempt to keep grades confidential. And we’re right back where we started.
Abandon performance evaluations. Stop serving poop.
- Coach, don’t judge. It’s not the annual cycle that’s the problem. It’s the whole grading paradigm. Grades end a conversation. Coaching starts one.
- Keep it simple. Engage in a series of engaging and powerful conversations using something that offers structure, process, and a time budget.
- Think “HR lite”. Stewardship of daily, weekly — or even monthly — conversations about performance and potential is not going to happen in the real world. People have jobs to do. Less is more.
- Maintain a strategic focus. Daily and weekly conversations are more tactical than strategic. Making ongoing adjustments is not the same as providing thematic counseling or career guidance.
- Follow the money. You don’t need to kill a forest to justify the difference between a two and 3.5% annual pay bump. Most of the adjustment to base pay comes from company budget and an individual’s compa-ratio (current pay vs. market for that position).
I challenge you to break the habit once and for all. If I want Baxter to quit eating deer droppings, I should stop walking him in the woods. Or get a cat.