Banish the dreaded performance review in 3 easy steps

You don't engage your employees by handing them a report card like they are grade-school students, but by helping them paint a picture of their future

Rebecca SchalmThe dreaded performance review is quite possibly the most detested human resources program ever invented. It doesn’t matter what process, form or technology is in place to accomplish this task, it is always bad.

And it doesn’t work – ever. The reason I know this is because I spent a year thumbing through job descriptions for Human Resources positions and “revamp the performance management system” was consistently among the top three priorities. You can take comfort in knowing it isn’t you; the system is fundamentally broken.

The reasons for this are many:

It focuses on the past. I can’t think of a bigger waste of time than re-hashing something I barely remember and can’t change.

It is used to justify a disappointing salary increase. At the end of a long, complex process I get a cost-of-living increase (if I’m lucky). The effort hardly seems worth the reward.

It treats us like grade schoolers. Jane’s enthusiasm for her work shines through. At times she could use more focus on fewer priorities.

The purpose of a performance management system is to help leaders and their teams prioritize and align activities with business goals. Its intent is to harness the energy of the smart, creative and hard-working people who show up every day in pursuit of achieving great things individually and as a collective. As discouraging as the performance management process confronting you is, my guess is that if it helped you really do this – propel individual, team and organizational performance forward – you would be all over it.

I have some personal experience with this and I’m here to tell you that it can be. And you don’t need to change the form to make it happen.

Step 1: Focus on performance planning, not performance review

How would you feel if your favourite hockey team showed up on the ice without a game plan? Instead of carefully crafted and well-rehearsed plays to get the puck in the net, the coach decided to let the players ‘wing it’.

That is what a lot of leaders do with their teams. Instead of investing time and energy in crafting well-considered performance contracts that align with business objectives, they leave it up to their employees to ‘play it by ear’ on a day-to-day basis.

Each member of your team should have clearly defined deliverables that directly align with your deliverables, which should directly support your boss’ deliverables, and so on.

This process takes time and effort, but at the end, each of your team members will have a concrete business plan they will use to prioritize their time and performance. They will know what is expected of them and align their activities accordingly. No surprises.

Step 2: Hold weekly review meetings based on the performance contract

When I took on managing a team, my leadership coach gave me a piece of advice: hold weekly 30 minute update meetings with everyone. The prospect of this seemed overwhelming to me, but I decided to give it a shot.

While it wasn’t always easy, and sometimes the weekly meeting drifted to a bi-weekly meeting, it worked. For 30 minutes each week, team members provided short and snappy updates against their performance plan. Anything not directly related to the plan was dealt with in a separate meeting.

What did this accomplish? Focus. Momentum. Timely, relevant two-way feedback. No surprises. Results. My team got the important stuff done. This is what performance management (and people leadership) is all about. More importantly, as a team we knew we were contributing in a significant way to helping the organization achieve results and we felt good about our accomplishments.

Step 3: Watch performance review become a non-event

With Step 1 and Step 2 in play, we found performance reviews were a non-event for us. Everyone knew where they stood because we tracked this on a regular basis. So instead of spending time arguing about and negotiating performance ratings at the end of the year, we spent our time talking about development and career goals.

And that is how you engage employees. Not by handing them a report card like they are grade-school students, but by helping them paint a picture of their future.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.


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