It's no secret what a good performance review outcome looks like. You learn about yourself. You are motivated and guided to leverage your strengths and develop your weaknesses. Your organization learns about you in particular and takes inventory of its talent pool in general. By comparing its clearly defined and communicated strategic goals to the talent available to make it happen, companies can effectively recruit, identify and develop best people.
It's no secret what a good performance review process looks like, either. There are no surprises. The annual review is simply an acknowledgment and conversation about ongoing feedback that is clear, specific, honest and embedded in daily interactions between people. It includes self-assessment. Rather than taking people away from their real work, it consists of conversations that support and drive that work. Performance review is simply a reflective moment in a flow of good communication.
So why do performance reviews instill such dread in managers, such fear in employees? Why do people struggle with, avoid, politicize, ridicule and misuse them? Return with me to high school English class for a moment.
It's early November; I'm sitting at my desk, heart pounding, breath racing, as Mrs. Cox takes forever to hand back the term papers that will comprise half of our grade for the first marking period. My essay, on the use of butter as a metaphor for creative possibility in Hemingway's short stories, is so trivial that, had I known about such things, I would have saved it for graduate school. But now all I care about is the grade. "Let it be an A," I chant silently. All around me, classmates are receiving their papers and fumbling immediately to below the last paragraph on the last page, where the big letter sits, circled. B+. C. A-. No one notices the full paragraphs of reflection, discussion, argument, suggestion, recommendations for further reading, or wry personal commentary that festoon each and every essay. We just don't care about that stuff. Gimme the grade! Tell me how it is! (And, by extension, how I am.)~Maybe your experience was different. Maybe your teacher didn't bother writing the developmental stuff; he knew nobody reads it, or he was too overworked or burned out to care about dairy usage in the Spanish Civil War. Maybe your teacher didn't even put a grade on the work, seeing as how it was so crass, and just slammed you from a distance with the report card.
That's the context most of us have, consciously or not, for performance review. In school, performance review (grades and report cards) evaluate our work, slot us into learning tracks, and label us as smart or dumb or average, deserving or undeserving of Advanced Placement, College, Good Job, Nice House, Really Cool Home Theater and the like. Notice what's missing? Development. Self-knowledge. Self-assessment. Some ownership over the process. Comparison to our past and our potential, and not just to our peers.
A friend who worked at Procter & Gamble in the early 1990s reminisced: "Performance review at P & G was a belabored, bureaucratic process. Much of it was actually helpful, even though it pains me to say it. The end result was not a bad thing. You came away with stuff you're good at and stuff to work on. One part was stupid: you were supposed to solicit broad-based feedback. Now remember that performance appraisal was the yardstick that determined bonuses and promotions. So choosing the people who were going to review you became a totally self-serving and political process. We all lined up people whom we knew would say only glowing things about us. You don't learn very much that way."
In the olden days, your manager's opinion was likely to be the first and last word on your performance. Now, many organizations are doing what my friend described, providing 360-degree feedback. You hear from your manager, your direct reports, peers, customers, vendors. In theory, this is great. It's a more complete picture, and it comes from people who can comment on your value to them, and not just how busy you kept yourself when anyone was looking. ~One way to encourage honest appraisal is to de-stigmatize performance gaps. At GE, for example, people wear their feedback on their sleeves. Everyone in the company has a top priority development issue, and everybody else learns it along with their name. One day an internal group was being introduced to outsiders. The group leader indicated toward someone. "This is Joe Shmoe, he has an issue with meeting deadlines." And so on down the line, including his own: "I tend to stifle discussion when I'm feeling time pressure."
At GE, everyone has an "opportunity area." This reframing of deficits into opportunities is a beautiful way to heal people who have been wounded by insensitive, disempowering evaluations throughout their lives.
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