Book Review: Get Rid of the Performance Review

June 22, 2010

Get Rid of the Performance Review!: How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing--and Focus on What Really Matters I’ve been a software development manager for several years, with plenty of time invested each year on the annual review process. And like everyone else, I’ve been on the receiving end of the annual review process throughout my career. Being on the receiving end is the very foundation of the entire book!

Samuel Culbert points out that the typical performance review is not an interaction between manager and employee, that there is only one opinion that counts: the boss’s. Furthermore, the entire conversation is set up for failure, because the employee believes he or she is negotiating pay and readiness for advancement while the boss is focused on missed opportunities, skill limitations, and relationships that could use enhancing.

Culbert continues, noting that everyone lacks something as measured by other people’s metrics. Yet despite this lack, they are accomplishing a lot in their lives anyway. And when it comes to managing knowledge workers in particular, so-called “objective” reviews aren’t. You can get excellent and poor reviews by different managers, even if you are doing the same job. (Have you ever had this experience? I have.)

The result of this – and Culbert does a great job of articulating the problems – is that the performance review does exactly the opposite of its intended purpose. It actually prevents workers from improving. Culbert calls it “a dehumanizing process that leaves workers demoralized, unwilling and unable to address weaknesses. It makes them hate coming to work, let alone inspire them to turn themselves into better employees.”

One example Culbert uses is from an engineer, who said, “My desire to please everyone, to receive a stamp of approval from everyone, is my weakest point.” But, according to his boss, the problem is that he wastes too much time accommodating requests from other departments that should be doing their own work. In this guy’s mind, he’s just trying to help others out. But in his boss’s mind, he’s insufficiently focused. Who’s right? They both are. Everybody is right and everyone loses. There is no column on the performance review for “tries to please everybody,” but there is one for “lacks focus.”

What should be done instead? Culbert recommends using a performance preview.

The goal is to have an ongoing dialog, not a monologue, to align the manager and employee to accomplishing a common goal. This makes good sense to me. As a manager, why judge someone after the fact, from “on high?” Where were you before the act?

Some key observations about the differences between a performance review and a performance preview:

  • Performance reviews are one-sided-accountable and boss-dominated monologues. Performance previews are two-sided conversations, with both sides accountable. 
  • Performance reviews mean that if the subordinate screws up, the subordinate suffers. Performance previews put both the subordinate’s and boss’s skin in the game.
  • Performance reviews lead to bullshit. Performance previews lead to straight talk. 
  • Performance reviews allow the big boss to go on autopilot. Performance previews force the big boss to become involved.
  • Performance reviews create a competition between boss and subordinate. Performance previews create a team where both teammates inform and learn from each other. 
  • Performance reviews focus on deviations from some ideal as weaknesses. Performance previews celebrate differences.
  • Performance reviews are about comparing employees. Performance previews treat people as individuals. 
Another component of the performance process that I think is appropriate, yet a strong deviation from the standardized review process in most organizations is the notion that “one size doesn’t fit all.” If you read this book and you feel that changes should be made in your organization, be prepared that specific recommendations aren’t available. It will get you thinking about the need for change and provide some solid guidance on what change should look like, but there won’t be a new procedure for you to follow. As the book noted:

There is no magic formula, no silver bullet. Ordering people to use a procedure in lockstep fashion would be the kiss of death because you would be replacing an antiquated formula with a new mandated formula. If people don’t have to think about the need that generates their activity, mindless stuff happens. Each management unit and each manager must come up with a format that they own.

The book is well-written and really makes an excellent case for getting rid of the performance review! (Of course, this is easier said than done.)

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