Talent Management

Let's Kill the Annual Performance Review

Beatings Meme.png

Let’s slay this zombie! Kill the undead! 

Have you ever seen a meme with this quote? It is a thing. My most cynical self believes these things are an evil plot designed by a nefarious management intent on never heaping praise on their people. They never wanted to accede to increasing what they pay their people, either. This is likely not even remotely close to the truth, but it is often what it feels like. Am I wrong? Tell me I’m wrong.

And, this information doesn’t come from my inner cynic. Instead, this information is born from years of having these things done to me, listening to friends and colleagues lament both having to participate and to having to write them for their teams. In this genre, complaints rule the day!

Note, organizations task different departments with this responsibility. And, traditional HR has been undergoing a bit of rebranding, of late. In your organization, this work could be part of the:

  • Talent Management

  • Performance Management

  • Total Rewards

  • Compensation & Benefits

  • Human Capital Management

  • Employee Management Care Unit

  • People Resource Center

  • People and Development

  • Human Relations

  • Employee Support

  • Talent Resources

  • People Operations

  • Team Member Services

No matter how human resources refers to themselves, the annual performance review is also called:

  • Demotivating

  • Demoralizing

  • Waste of time

  • Energy drain

  • Time suck

  • Always feared

  • Hated

  • Check the box

  • Do them because we are required to

  • No raise anyway

  • Why do they bother?

  • Skewed rating scale

  • Exercise in short term memory

  • Excess paperwork

  • Unworkable forms and templates

  • Exercise in futility

  • Death by “feedback” and “coaching”

My opinion as to why these things generally are an epic fail and need to be re-thought are broad and deep. Eight of them are listed here for your consideration.

No training. Let me begin with my #1 reason: Little-to-no training provided, offered, or required, as to the proper way to complete the bloody things. Just, “here’s where to find the form”, “the deadline is XX/XX/XX”, and….Go! Isn’t the health of your organizational culture and employee morale worth investing some resources in making sure the people completing them know what they’re doing? And, done in a respectful way (that keeps the organization from a lawsuit at some point)?

Ridiculous Expectations. Often, completing the annual performance reviews is a test of a leader’s endurance. Everyone on their team is to receive this written “feedback”. Leaders are to complete them well, completely, and on time. All in addition to doing their “day jobs”. All reviews are due on the same date. Or else.

Unskilled at Being A Leader. For reasons that aren’t always apparent, but often include succession planning, an employer chooses to hire someone at an elevated level. Then, to justify that role, title, and salary, they must have a team reporting to them. This is true whether, or not, they have acquired the necessary skills somewhere along the way. This is a huge mistake and "breaks" people. Being unprepared to lead and unprepared to provide feedback is a great way to see how employee morale can go backwards. I have quite a lot of thoughts on the subject, which I will write about another time.

Check the Box Plan. The entire exercise exists just to check a box. Employee contributions to the effort don’t always matter. Sure, they are great reminders to the leader or manager. But too often, the employee’s contribution is merely an activity to check a box. Then, at the “review” event the leader does the talking making certain to include everything they “have to” to say.

Ridiculous Templates. Required entry is into a prescribed (read: often ridiculous) template. Sometimes, the templates are poorly designed MS Word documents, with weird formatting things to surmount. But these days, most commonly leaders and managers type the information into a talent management “system”. Few instructions provided. Information is to fit into boxes with a prescribed number of characters allowed. Sometimes there is a series of recursive questions, meaning the response generates a new question. None of this is conducive to creative thought and writing in a caring, thoughtful way about an ACTUAL PERSON.

Great at their jobs. Not coaching. Coaching is not an innate skill. We need to learn how to do it, practiced often, and developed over time—after relationships are well established. Therefore, most people providing feedback and coaching to others are inexperienced at doing so effectively. This isn’t their fault when it doesn’t go as well as it could. Also, coaching is not a topic generally offered in schools. In my opinion, many people are forced to use the “baptism by fire” method and learn from doing what not to do.

Getting feedback is tough. Receiving feedback is also not an innate skill. Since being on the receiving end of anything is rarely comfortable, we need to ease into it. To begin, the level of trust between the feedback giver and feedback receiver must be at an all-time high. Otherwise, forget it. Don’t go there. Not even for a minute.

Carrot with a stick. And finally, let’s just STOP with the carrot/stick events. Meaning having the annual raise/no raise conversation at the same time as “giving feedback”. Doing it this way dilutes the performance conversation. The coachee sits through the whole discussion thinking, “Yeah, yeah, how long until we get to the money part of this deal? How much will I get?” Really. Just stop. What it feels like: the “carrot and the stick”, feedback must be endured just to find out whether there is a raise or not.

Moving away from why this model doesn’t work to suggestions for an alternative plan. When handled well and consistently, these ideas honor the work of your employees and set them up for success. (not dread) Following are some pieces of advice I’ve developed over the years to help leaders and managers to be successful. Why? Because your success matters to me. And, so does the success of your people.

Coaching has a bad reputation. “Coaching”. This word often has a bad reputation. I suggest NEVER even using that word to describe a discussion of people’s job and work performance. Especially if the “coach” intends the message is to be received by the coachee in a positive manner. Also, whenever the message the coach is communicating includes the addition of developing skills and/or tasks to the coachee’s work.

Instead, have regularly scheduled conversations with your coachee. Some of these conversations should be completely unscripted and all about you listening and the individual member of your staff talking about whatever they need or want to talk about. It is okay for you, the leader/manager to have an agenda, but this should be more the exception than the rule. Doing this often and well means the annual performance planning conversation and review will be less stressful for everyone. There will also be higher levels of trust and engagement on both sides, too.

Next, each side prepares a few talking points before the annual performance planning discussion and review. Devote equal time to each side’s discussion items. Setting things up this way sets the discussion up to be a dialog between two people, with no risk of it being a one-sided lecture.

It bears repeating that none of us is born adept at receiving feedback well. The higher the risk, the bigger the impact, and the more investment the coachee has made, the greater the level of stress over receiving feedback will be. To be successful, a few performance planning and review conversation tips:

  • Every leader and manager must approach these conversations planning for them to be a dialog. Meaning both people speak and the amount of time each receives is equal.

  • Without trust and a relationship between the coach and coachee, this is difficult at best. Do those things first. Performance planning and feedback can wait.

  • When trust is present, the coachee will be able to be more open to the dialog. Until there is trust, there is liable to be resentment and doing things out of fear.

  • Resolving the “carrot and the stick” situation is simple. As mentioned above, have regularly scheduled discussions with every staff member means you’re just having another conversation. Then, schedule a separate event to discuss the financial aspects of the annual performance review.

You will probably have little, or no, impact over the template, format, or online tool used. Having written this, I still have a few success tips to share:

  • Begin as soon as the review period starts.

  • Don’t try to do them all at once.

  • Your staff deserves to have time spent on the written and narrative portion of the review. Make and take the time needed.

  • NO surprises. Ever. This is completely inappropriate and not the time.

  • The narrative should reflect the entire previous review period’s conversation between you. Also, it should never be only a few recent memories you haven’t previously discussed.

  • Keep excellent notes all year, so compiling into the performance planning discussion and review should be relatively easy to pull together.

You will probably have little influence over killing this zombie any time soon. But, you can continue to engage in the discussion with HR. You can also change your approaches to how you do things. If you do, you’ll certainly reduce the zombie’s size and increase the level of effectiveness with your staff. And, isn’t that the point anyway? I think it is.  

Contact me for help with this, updating your training strategy, or building stronger teams. I can't wait to talk with you!




Someone as cynical as I am about this topic: https://www.forbes.com/sites/yishanwong/2012/02/11/the-peculiar-origins-of-the-performance-review-and-other-hr-bureaucracy/#6ee53fb55b00