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Post Leadership
Posted at 04:22 PM ET, 12/22/2011

Everything that’s wrong with performance reviews

It’s performance review season, and end-of-the-year articles are awash with advice for employees on how to make the best of them in this tough economy. Don’t be confrontational. Send your boss a succinct summary of the year’s accomplishments ahead of time. Follow up on how you’re responding to the feedback.  

But it’s not really employees who need to improve the performance review process. It’s leaders. This annual rite of passage may be designed to help meet organizational goals and assist with people’s careers, but it typically has the opposite effect, damaging morale, ramping up anxiety and being so comprehensive as to be meaningless. It’s the people designing the processes who need the advice, not the participants in them.

First and foremost, top leaders need to make sure reviews are designed to help performance, rather than just cover their hides. I won’t be the first to say that too many evaluations seem designed with one group of people in mind: Lawyers. Rather than being an opportunity for learning and growth, they all too often feel like a way to protect the legal team from any future claims against the organization. Look, see? We warned you that you weren’t performing up to snuff.

Even if the evaluation process does seem to have performance improvement in mind, most reviews are incredibly ineffective at doing that. Giving them can be so onerous—there are too many forms to fill out, human resources rules to follow and other people’s input to get—that most managers dread the process immensely. As a result, what should be a helpful, beneficial conversation becomes a tedious task most leaders can’t wait to check off their lists.

One of the biggest problems is that the process seems designed to make managers as inconsequential as possible. Their judgment is questioned when they’re forced to rank their people on a curve, only letting, say, 10 percent of their people get top grades even if they truly believe 20 percent are deserving. Their jobs are misunderstood as they’re asked to shoe-horn employees’ responsibilities into broad corporate mandates that have little to do with the day-to-day careers of the people who work for them. And their time is disrespected when they’re asked—at a time of year when their lives are already overwhelming—to completely stop what they’re doing and have lengthy conversations about an entire year’s worth of work that both people involved can hardly remember.

Those are just some of the reasons a few companies have become frustrated enough with the process that they’re doing away with performance reviews entirely. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that according to the Corporate Executive Board, 1 percent of companies are dropping them. While that may seem small, it’s notable given the stranglehold the practice has had on human resources departments for years. Some business school professors have advocated their end, too, calling them a “dysfunctional pretense” that are “negative to corporate performance” and “a prime cause of low morale at work.”

Of course, what most organizational leaders need to do is not drop the concept of performance reviews entirely, but change them dramatically so they work much better. Come up with a way to encourage managers to give structured feedback regularly—at least once a month, if not every week. Don’t force managers to squeeze the criteria they grade people on into goals dictated by human resources unless those are truly applicable to the person’s job and career. And please, eliminate the ridiculous idea that performance rankings should be plotted on a distribution curve and that managers don’t have the sound judgment to rate the people who work for them. If top leaders don’t respect the people they’ve deemed to put in positions of power, no one is going to respect the performance review process, either.

More from On Leadership:

2011’s worst leadership moments

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By  |  04:22 PM ET, 12/22/2011

 
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