The Performance Review “Needs Improvement”

Updated: October 7, 2020

My first performance review was a painful experience. It was 1997 but I remember it like it happened yesterday. I had just completed my first year with a major accounting firm. Like most ‘first years’ in the CPA program I had a steep learning curve and was putting in ridiculous hours. When I entered the room for my first performance review I was unprepared for the rating I was about to receive: “Needs Improvement”. Ouch.

Leaders do a disservice to their people if they blindside them with a poor review. However, it shouldn’t be a surprise. Feedback should be regular throughout the year, especially if people are struggling. Not only does it soften the blow of a negative review, it gives people a chance to focus on development immediately.

Navigating a flawed performance review process

This post focuses on how we can improve the performance review process itself. We understand that this is not something that we can change overnight. To help you successfully navigate your current performance review process, even if it is flawed and archaic, we have created three related posts:

Performance conversations are a cornerstone of leadership.

Performance conversations are a core element of a high-performance culture, whether they are part of a formal performance review cycle or a conversation about performance during a 1:1 employee check-in meeting. Though most leaders understand that performance reviews can help people achieve more goals, they might not recognize the powerful opportunity to improve the human experience of work.

It’s time to modernize performance management. Our research shows that many employees see significant ‘room for improvement’ in the ways that their performance conversations are conducted, while many others are not receiving performance feedback at all. The good news is that leaders agree. Leaders commonly identify performance reviews as a ‘development area’ for themselves in SupportingLines High-Performance Leader Self-Assessments. Both employees and leaders recognize the importance of getting this right. While the greatest limitation for many is the inability to change their organization’s archaic performance review process, we can do better. We must do better if we are to cultivate high-performance.

The performance review needs improvement

Helping people grow is a foundational element of cultivating high-performance and the performance conversation is front and centre. To modernize the performance review process leaders need to shift their mindset in three key ways.

1. Performance reviews are a perception of a perception of a perception.

As you read this, somewhere there is a leadership team huddled together in a boardroom for a calibration exercise. The leaders methodically pour through mountains of data and discuss each employee in detail to ensure highly-inaccurate, biased performance ratings are precisely calibrated across the team. This real-life episode of The Office could only be more perfect if Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute actually walked into the room.

Many people see performance reviews as an exact science. They shouldn’t. Calibration implies the presence of science, yet a performance review typically centres around a manager’s perception…their perception of how an employee performed, relative to their perception of the expectations tied to that role, as well as their  perception of standards of acceptable behaviours. Don’t forget to consider this review is influenced by  the manager’s perception of how the employee might perceive the feedback. This is not a precise process.

2. Performance conversations are about development, not arbitrary ratings. 

One of the best books I have read on this topic is “Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A’ by Garry Ridge and Ken Blanchard. Leaders spend many hours in judgment, grading people with biased, arbitrary ratings taken to the first decimal to imply a level of non-existent precision. This leaves employees with a number that has little to no insight on how to actually improve. 

A judgment-infused performance conversation is not an enjoyable human experience. Effective performance conversations focus on creating mutual awareness of how people are doing. At SupportingLines, we use terms like ‘developing’, ‘delivering’ or ‘excelling’ to frame this awareness, however there is no need for a final rating. We simply want to identify development areas and co-create how we can support the employee’s growth. We are using feedforward to create opportunities for growth together instead of harshly using feedback to pin down the past.

3. There are three elements of individual performance.

Most people consider performance in one dimension: is the person good at their job. While that is a critical element of high-performance, there are three elements to consider:

  • Is the person performing the core tasks of their role? When we have a performance conversation we should consider if the person is performing the technical aspects of their role. It is important for a software engineer to create bug-free code or a salesperson to actually close a deal once in a while. There will be role-specific development areas as well.
  • Is the person living the organization’s values? Consider not only results, but how those results were achieved. If a salesperson is closing deals while leaving a trail of wreckage and debris behind them, it is unlikely that they are living the values of the organization. An effective performance conversation deliberately and explicitly incorporates the values of the organization.
  • Is the person demonstrating effective leadership? Everyone in your organization, regardless of their job title, is a leader. Leadership capabilities should be assessed in performance conversations, considering the expectations for leadership for an employees current role and, if relevant, their next future role.

Collect more data to truly help people grow. Our comprehensive approach to performance conversations considers all three elements of high-performance: performing in role, living organizational values and demonstrating leadership skills. Assessing all three elements is the most effective way to truly help people grow. Performance conversations are taken to the next level when we also incorporate additional data and context from the High-Performance Leader assessment. We can easily expand the performance conversation into a 360° review by inviting other colleagues to provide performance feedback using the same instrument in the future.

Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith

Founder & CEO

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