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The Performance Review gets its annual performance review

Getty/Tim Macpherson
You should be nervous.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The goal of this review is to create the impression that our evaluation of you is not ad hoc and subjective. Employees will be awarded totally non-arbitrary rankings on core competencies. Managers will also provide feedback strongly informed by their mood and hunger level at the time of writing, and what little they remember of the last month or so. Please be aware that a copy of this document will live in your HR file forever.

Rankings key:

5 = Role model status
4 = Exceeds expectations
3 = Consistently meets standards
2 = Mostly underperforming
1 = Reliably failing at this job factor

Communicates clearly in conversation and text
Responds to peers in a timely manner
Effectively adapts communication style to different groups of people
Is appropriately transparent

Comments: The Performance Review’s written communications often rely too heavily on coded language, and are sometimes focused on the subject’s personality, rather than that person’s work. Verbal delivery can be rushed and vague, as if the reviewer is protecting the company from a potential lawsuit. More troublingly, it typically communicates only once every 12 months, and can be creepily quiet otherwise, to the point where many people forget it exists. Then, boom, it returns with the sudden menace of a jack-in-the-box.

Because the Performance Review appears so infrequently, junior managers are often not practiced in working with them, which means a communication breakdown is inevitable. What transpires is an awkward conversation which, as Gallup once put it, makes an employee feel like they are speaking to “a completely different person than they are used to working with.”

The Performance Review is also inflexible in its presentation and does not adjust its form or style to suit, say, millennials, who prefer to receive feedback more frequently, or employees who have been in the same job for several years. Feedback from direct reports contains glaring red flags: One survey showed that 62% of millennials have felt “blindsided” by an encounter with the Performance Review.

Finally, in its long history, the Performance Review has been indifferent to mental health conditions in its subjects. Its occasional bluntness—and anticipatory fear of what it might say—have triggered untold panic attacks.

Demonstrates sound judgment and empathy for colleagues
Turns errors into opportunities for growth
Pro-actively seeks feedback from peers and managers

The Performance Review almost always ignores cognitive traps that may be coloring an evaluator’s judgment of a direct report, including recency, halo, and confirmatory biases.

Reportedly, more than 50% of performance reviews say more about the traits of the reviewer, rather than the work of the sweat-soaked employee whose traits and skills have been put under the microscope.

Prejudices connected to race and gender also go unnoticed. For example, academics have found that women and people of color who promote diversity tend to get penalized for it by the Performance Review. However, the Performance Review tends to see white men as more likable for doing the same thing.

Despite the evidence, the Performance Review seems oblivious to its own weight and impact on others, even though its existence is usually directly tied to pay increases and job security, and informally linked (ill-advisedly) to some employees’ sense of self-worth. Had it made a serious attempt to solicit feedback, it would have learned that even people who are open to learning and criticism suffer negative effects from the review ritual, just less so than others. What’s more, people listening to reviews often have their brains hijacked by threats detected in any evaluation, including well-intentioned advice, because that’s how the mind works.

Does the Performance Review know any of this? Has it heard that it has been called “corporate kabuki,” and that the well-regarded, typically restrained Harvard Business Review used the unambiguous term “despise” to characterize the way both subordinates and supervisors feel about it?

Finally, the Performance Review has been accused of exhibiting favoritism since the third century. As recently as 2015, it was said to favor self-promoters and narcissists. Either the Performance Review has very low self-awareness, or it is deliberately trying to prevent meaningful change.

Consistently delivers positive results
Prioritizes work according to the company’s explicit mission
Demonstrates excellent time management skills
Is conscientious about budget constraints

We wish we had positive numbers to share, figures that would justify the discomfort the Performance Review inflicts on employees and managers, the money it extracts from corporate budgets, and all the time that’s allocated to it, both at work and at the watering hole around the corner.

Alas, the evidence is to the contrary. The Performance Review has been shown to have no impact on productivity or profit. Gallup has found that a mere 14% of employees “strongly agree their performance reviews inspire them to improve.” Part of the problem may be the employee’s reluctance to talk about real problems in these yearly chats, for fear that being truthful will hurt their ranking and scar their personnel record.

Although the evaluations are not motivating or enlightening for most people, the average manager is thought to spend 210 hours a year—or about 25 work days—on the procedure, including time spent attending meetings or training. All told, a company of about 10,000 employees might devote around $35 million to appraisals yearly, including the cost of performance management software, according to expert estimations.

These estimates do not include the hours spent by employees informally discussing performance reviews or messaging their colleagues about them, during office hours. Even among employees who resist the chatter, there’s the problem of presenteeism—employees are at work, but distracted by the Performance Review’s pending arrival.

Suggested plan for improvement: Train to become a Weekly Check-In

Five years ago, Samuel Culbert, a prominent UCLA management professor, said he’d like to “lead the million-person march on Washington to get rid of performance reviews.” That sounds brutal, but more companies are sympathetic to that view every year.  Over the past decade or more, the rite has been radically altered at several multinational companies, including Accenture, The Gap, Adobe, IBM, Microsoft, and General Electric.

Arguably, the most daring and effective reinventions make so many changes that the original tradition is unrecognizable. As your manager, I would advocate to retrain the Performance Review for the role of Weekly Check-In. Lower stakes and strategically more appropriate for today’s fast-changing business environment, the Weekly Check-in is five times more likely to produce meaningful feedback for employees, says Gallup. Its subjects are also three times more likely to feel engaged at work.

I wish the Performance Review the best of luck as it makes this exciting transition! I also encourage it to seek peer support in the Outdated Cultural Practices affinity group, currently being co-chaired by Dress Code and Lunch Drinking.

X _________________ Employee’s signature

X _________________ Manager’s signature

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