The performance review is a crucial part of the ongoing dialogue between managers and employees. It summarises ongoing performance and personal development and ensures the needs of an organisation are aligned with what its people can deliver. Sounds simple right? Wrong! We’re sure you won’t be surprised to learn that performance reviews are one of the hottest debated topics in the workplace. They can have surprising effects; reviews have the power to celebrate and motivate, yet for so many, they are something that instills pure fear and dread. Whatever you think about employee performance management, it can be designed to work better so that appraisals are effective and remain positive.
According to Jonny Gifford, Senior Advisor for Organisational Behaviour at the Chartered Institute of Organisational Behaviour, the purpose of performance reviews is to identify areas for growth and improvement whilst informing suitable development plans. It’s a chance for both employer and employee to reflect on the health of their relationship and review what’s working and what’s not working effectively. One of the scary aspects of a performance review is that they are linked to ‘official processes’ that involve pay, bonuses, promotions and redundancy. In a world where most of us rely on our employment to support ourselves and our families, it’s no wonder that the prospect of a review can be so troubling.
The types of performance reviews that have given the practice a bad name are those that are one dimensional, tending only to focus on the negatives or shortcomings of employee performance and ultimately, leaving important feedback to a short-lived event that only happens once per year.
Jonny identified several approaches that can turn stuffy old negative reviews into something positive and possibly even liberating. First of all, for many roles performance can be communicated in real time using dashboards that are clear for all to see. These ensure that teams know how they are doing everyday and don’t need to wait an extended period to understand how their effort is turning into tangible results and contributing to those all-important goals and objectives.
Performance reviews and appraisals can also become a nightmare for managers who end up drowning in masses of data. When you’re tracking too many metrics, it can be difficult to actually make the data mean something. The solution is to keep measurements down a to minimum. Focus on a few key performance measures; those that are simple, relevant and truly understandable for employees.
People are often suspicious of each others’ scores. “Our Manager likes Claire and he employed her in the first place, so no wonder she’s got a 4 out of 5.” Your people are not just imagining this or letting their suspicion get the better of them. Bias is alive and kicking in all organisations and it’s something that can happen unconsciously. So you might not even be aware that you’re doing it.
Therefore some clever little strategies can help to eradicate this. One of these is allowing employees and managers to provide written feedback in their own words. Because each party is able to prepare this beforehand, it takes away the pressure to perform in a very formal environment, where most people feel nervous and can get mind-block. Imagine being asked: “give me an example where you exceeded a client’s expectations this year” and your brain goes down into lockdown mode.
Try 360 degree feedback
To take this a step further, try 360 degree or multi source feedback. This allows between 8 or 10 people from across your business to complete questionnaires on an employee’s performance. This can include peers, direct reports, more senior colleagues or even clients.
There’s a great reason for putting forward this approach. In reality, an employee’s line manager doesn’t necessarily fully appreciate the the true contribution of any one person that they manage and the value they add for people and departments across the organisation. By looking at a person’s performance holistically, it gives a much richer picture of performance. This approach can also help employees to feel valued and feel more self aware. When using this approach, just be careful to ensure the process is totally fair. Each and every reviewer needs to be impartial and not provide ratings just to thank or punish a fellow colleague.
What on Earth is the Feedforward interview?
HR experts Avraham Kluger and Dina Nir at the Hebrew University’s school of Business Administration created something called the “Feedforward Interview Approach” as something that can be used as a compliment or even a replacement for traditional performance management systems. They set out to create a system that would elicit positive emotions, foster bonding and build an ‘psychological safe environment’ where people would feel comfortable sharing information.
Here’s an extract from their paper that will set the scene for you:
“During a feedforward workshop which we conducted for approximately 30 high-school principals, one of the principals got up at the beginning of the second session and said excitedly: “I must tell you what happened to me. I tried the feedforward interview with an employee I had already decided to dismiss, and asked him to tell me about an event at work during which he felt at his best. In response, he told me that for quite some time now he had felt that his performance was not satisfactory. He then went on to explain all the remedial steps he had taken and how great he felt about the changes he had made.” The principal further added: “following the feedforward interview, I saw him in a new light, and discovered new things about him that I could not have imagined beforehand”. She was very glad to tell her colleagues that instead of having to go through an agonizing dismissal process, she discovered that he could turn into a productive and valuable employee.” Human Resource Management Review 20 (2010) 235–246 - The Feedforward Interview
Thinking about this story, what would have happened if the principal had used a traditional performance-appraisal approach? A typical feedback form would have presented the employee with a raft of shortcomings and negative feedback. Put yourself right into the situation. Can you imagine what might happen next? After hearing that their performance was poor or unsatisfactory, the conversation would have likely turned into a tug-of-war between the two people, arguing about the finer details of each point. The opportunity for the manager to learn something new would have been lost and their ability to work together successfully in the future would have been jeopardised (Coens & Jenkins, 2000).
We highly recommend reading the full paper by Kluger and Nir; this ‘Feedforward’ approach looks to offer a refreshingly different approach to typical performance appraisal systems.
Taking these ideas forward
The truth is, there’s numerous ways to make the appraisals process work for you and your organisation. From having the right performance management software to having the right step by step processes that enable you to get a full and accurate picture of how your teams are providing a return on investment. There’s no single one-size-all-fits approach, so you’re advised to take a test and learn approach, seeing what works for your particular team or department. Don’t be afraid to ask other fellow line-managers about their own approach to performance management. They’ll be sure to have something new and interesting to add to the conversation.