Performance Reviews tend to have a bad reputation among both business leaders and their employees. All too often the mention of them creates stress for all involved; employees brace themselves to hear the worst and managers carry the burden of yet another required and often uncomfortable task on their to-do list. Before the reviews even begin, the energy of the work culture begins to shift. Without proper preparation, performance reviews do more harm than good, but when approached thoughtfully, they can be the catapult that transforms a work culture from surviving to thriving.
Measuring and providing feedback about performance makes sense if an organization wants to grow and thrive but historically these reviews are administered without thought to the intention behind them or accountability. When these two key ingredients are missing, authentic leaders shoot themselves in the foot, leaving precious human resources on the table.
Key #1: Intention
The intention is everything when it comes to communicating. Clear communication is the foundation of a thriving organization so before entering into performance reviews, an authentic leader must be willing to honestly inspect the beliefs and attitudes they hold about each employee. Judgments, good or bad, will determine the intention (energy) of the conversation.
For example, during a coaching session I once had with a leader, she admitted to often using performance reviews as a way of “getting rid of underperforming employees.” As you might guess, this intention (energy of judgment) would create an entirely different conversation experience than an intention to “nurture high caliber performance (energy of competence).
Authentic leaders know that energy speaks louder than words. Even “less sensitive” people can feel intention (energy), good or bad before a word has ever been spoken. If you doubt this, recall a time when you were in a conversation where you felt the person just wanted to prove you wrong. How did that energy affect your conversation? On the contrary, think of a time you were approached by someone who was troubled but you could tell the intention behind their communication was to reach a peaceful resolution. Different intentions create different outcomes. Some conversations build relationships of trust and respect and some do not.
Taking the time to investigate the communication outcome you want in a performance review will help you to discover your intention for the conversation. Just as with diversity, considering one’s internal bias can reveal to a leader if they value inclusion in the workforce. Would you naturally discover the best your people have to offer if it wasn’t part of your intention in a review? Probably not. And when it comes to full utilization of a workforce and having satisfied employees wouldn’t it seem like necessary and even critical information?
Key #2: Accountability
Historically, performance reviews contain a culture of hierarchy. Titles and roles tend to muddy the waters and hold some to account while others are exempt. For example, you would think that if the “disciplinary process’ ‘ is initiated for an employee who has a pattern of violating an organization’s core values or not meeting deliverables, the same would occur for a supervisor or manager who tolerated the behavior. But that does not happen.
This hierarchy is one thing that gets in the way of two human beings simply having accountable conversations. When the leader in charge is perceived to hold all the power, both employee and leader suffer. A culture of hierarchy perpetuates a lack of accountability at a leadership level, which quickly leads to disempowerment and lowered performance.
When people don’t hold themselves accountable and others to account, they are less likely to speak up about important concerns or share creative ideas. Even worse, they may decide that ultimately the responsibility is the leader’s job, disengage and abdicate their leadership. On the other hand, if leaders aren’t 100% accountable for their role in the missed results and only blame employees for poor performance, they model a culture of finger pointing that creates distrust. Distrust is the antithesis of the desired culture.
When a performance review is entered into as an accountable conversation between two people who have each other’s best interest at heart, magic happens. If both leader and employee take full ownership of the results and look with sincerity to see what elements have contributed to the outcome without blame, fault or guilt, a relationship of trust is built that makes for positive forward movement. Even when the path forward results in a parting of ways, both manager and employee leave the exchange empowered.
The payoffs that come from being intentional and accountable during performance reviews are huge. When not used as a weapon to punish self or others, intention and accountability become the secret elixirs that build mighty individuals and model employees. Accountable workplace culture is filled with humans that are courageous enough to speak up when necessary and act in alignment with the organization’s values. They have a strong belief and respect for their own value which results in heightened initiative, creativity, and innovation. Leaders must commit to creating cultures that model and reward these qualities.
At The Russell Consulting Group we’ve found the most effective performance evaluations incorporate the following:
People think culture is something going on “out there” but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Every human is a unique creature, with a kaleidoscope of beliefs and differences. This plays a significant role in the implementation of this more productive conversational approach to performance reviews. The organizational beliefs about performance evaluations, employees, and accountability all impact the process as does the intention behind them. Working with each employee to identify whether these beliefs benefit the evaluation process often creates an immediate shift and a more positive work environment for all.
Language Grounded in Accountability with an Intention for Success
Instead of leaving employees feeling micromanaged or incompetent during a performance review, conduct evaluations that allow for meaningful conversations between the leader and employee that imprint a message of accountability and trust. Come to the table with the belief that every employee has something to offer the organization. If it’s discovered through the conversation that their skills and talents may be better served elsewhere, or the role is misaligned with their definition of success for work, rejoice with them and let them either move to another team within the organization or transition elsewhere.
Qualitative Performance System
Many performance reviews use a number of rating reviews (1-5 ) or levels of performance (Needs improvement, Meets expectations, Exceed expectations) systems. Instead consider switching to a qualitative system, in which employees receive ratings of either Fully Successful Performance (FSP) or Coaching for Success (CFS). The qualitative system, modeled after the Appreciative Inquiry Method, opens the door for more honest and less defensive dialogue between leader and employee. One of my clients tried this and lo and behold, it gave employees more autonomy over their evaluations, resulting in increased employee accountability and productivity. The organization experienced a culture shift in interpersonal relationships, trust, loyalty, and productivity.
Clarity of Outcomes
Often performance evaluations are a list of tasks or essential functions, which can be interpreted differently by both the employee and the supervisor. Having clear and measurable outcomes (key performance expectations to be produced), as well as competencies (what skills they need to achieve the outcome), allow for a less judgmental conversation.
The goal is to have more frequent conversations about performance (both good and bad), but not as a replacement for the formal performance conversation. Satisfaction surveys show that employees want more immediate and frequent feedback. Being blind-sided at a scheduled interview about behavior that they could have corrected creates frustration and distrust. Allowing for more frequent, honest conversations about performance builds trust and improves employee-leader relationships.
Providing training in the performance competencies required to deliver the outcomes and the new performance review system will allow employees and leaders the opportunity to practice in order to become more proficient.
So, Are You Doing More Harm Than Good?
Performance reviews void of the ingredients above will undoubtedly do more harm than good and lead to toxic company culture. An authentic leader knows that in order to heighten employee productivity they must look honestly at their intention behind each performance review they perform.
They must also check for any internal judgment or biases so they can have accountable conversations grounded in mutual respect. Done with a little forethought, performance reviews can be magical and transformational experiences rather than something to stress about.
They can boost morale, increase engagement and drastically improve results. We like to say, “Empowered people are mighty people.” because we’ve seen the transformation that occurs when leaders (and we are all leaders) trust themselves and experience what they are capable of. We call that ignited leadership.