The Performance Review is a Joke But It’s Not Funny

July 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

The typical review is a failure and a joke. This year Sibson Consulting reported, in the results of a poll, that 58% of human resource professionals grade the typical review a “C” or below in effectiveness. Only 2% of the HR people in a recent poll of 2,677 people made up of 1,800 employees, 645 human resources managers, and 232 CEOs (by San Francisco-based rewards-and-recognition consulting firm Achievers) said these reviews accomplish anything useful.
A recent blog on an attorney website offered 6 simple suggestions for making the performance review more effective. The suggestions were the usual unsophisticated old management model. It dawned on me that attorneys benefit the most from this dysfunctional organizational practice because it usually doesn’t work and that dysfunction causes HR to hire an attorney to clean up the mess. It is a lot like a Doctor who instructs patients how to eat large amounts of sugar correctly. It damages the patients’ health so the office visits can increase. Congratulations to all those attorneys who continue to promote the dysfunctional process that keeps them employed. It’s a great marketing strategy. Although I am not accusing attorneys of malpractice their continued insistence on the use of a management tool that consistently fails causes one to take pause and ask questions.
Why is it not funny?
People need feedback to experience joy and learning at work. They don’t get it from the typical review because whatever feedback they get is usually too little too late and biased. A lack of feedback prevents learning and prevents intrinsic enjoyment. This is a tragedy. It is a joke to think we need performance reviews to get feedback but it is not funny.
Why are we addicted?
We are addicted to performance reviews because we are addicted to an inaccurate set of beliefs about how people are motivated and how people learn. We were taught that students won’t learn unless they are graded. We are told we can’t measure student progress unless we see their grades. This false belief supports the use of performance reviews in the workplace. The truth is people naturally love to learn. The use of grades reduces the interest level in the subjects being taught.
This false belief about learning follows into the workplace. We incorrectly assume that employees will not work hard unless they are graded and rewarded based on performance. Furthermore, we can’t make promotional and/or career decisions without grades (performance ratings).
Grades and performance are used to control behaviors. People who feel controlled are less creative and therefore less happy. The latest research shows employee engagement to be at a dismal 29%.
Why Do They Consistently Fail?
Most HR professionals (and attorneys) attribute the failure of performance reviews to poor management skills and or poor training but reviews the flaws are systemic. It’s not the techniques it’s the very nature of the review itself.
Reviews attempt to measure the performance of an individual in a system. It’s not possible to measure this accurately. It is all guesswork and bias at best and it cannot be verified because the system within which people work is too complex to evaluate just one part’s contribution.
For example, if you exercise, your heart, lungs and nervous system all must work together to make that happen. Which of those body organs is more important? It’s impossible to know because the organs are interdependent. The lungs will work only if the heart is pumping blood bringing oxygen to the muscles. The nervous system send needed messages to the brain which send signals to the muscles etc. To attempt to rate or grade each of the parts separate from the others makes no sense and it not useful. It’s the quality of the interactions between the organs that enable the exercise.
Employees are by nature interdependent with each other and the other parts of the organizational system. The performance review unnaturally tries to make them independent.
Is there an alternative?
Any alternative must be consistent with systems thinking and must acknowledge the interdependence of each of the parts. Any alternative must build trust between the parts and not damage it like the current process does. The alternative must not include a grade or rating for the employee. It must not be connected to pay for performance decisions. The alternative must enable the manager and the employees to partner with each other as colleagues to solve process issues.
The alternative must heap a greater sense of responsibility on both the employee and the manager and it will be a list of higher quality responsibilities. The alternative will therefore treat employees like adults and managers like facilitators. It will be a shift from the current which treats employees like children and managers being like parents.
The alternative provides immediate feedback when it is needed. It delivers that feedback without fear and without bias. It delivers it for the purpose of improving trust or learning. It avoids grading anyone because it is unnecessary for learning. It optimizes opportunities to allow employees to track their own feedback without reliance on management.
The alternative will not be a joke. It will instead create joy at work for both employees and managers alike. It will create fun with innovation and productivity. It will be fun. It won’t be a joke.


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