As federal leaders approach the end of the calendar year, many are preparing for their employees’ annual performance reviews. Time-consuming, heavily regulated and often unsatisfying, evaluations have been the subject of many recent headlines as big companies like General Electric, Accenture and Deloitte have started to phase them out. That's left some government leaders asking, “Can we kill the performance reviews in the federal government?”

In government, of course, change is not so easy. Federal agencies are required to perform annual reviews using a five-point rating system, unless they have been given special authority to develop an alternative system. There’s no changing the system at the whim of a Cabinet secretary, as is the case with a CEO. Adjusting the formal rules and regulations of the federal government’s performance management system would require an act of Congress, quite literally.

That’s probably all right, however, because the reality is that to mimic the changes these companies are initiating wouldn't require an official overhaul.

These private-sector organizations are shifting their focus away from once-a-year reviews to more frequent, real-time feedback conversations that leaders hope will result in improved employee engagement and performance. Most likely, leaders will be spending as much if not more time meeting with employees to deliver feedback. In fact, companies like GE are developing smartphone apps to facilitate ongoing, instant performance feedback between supervisors and employees.

What these organizations will be eliminating is the decades-old approach to rating and ranking employees on a bell curve, where the highest performing employees are rewarded and the poorest performing employees are fired.

Federal agencies are actually already prohibited from ranking employees against each other. Employees are to be rated against objective performance standards and their reviews should reflect their performance relative to those standards. In other words, agencies are supposed to evaluate employees based on merit and can't force their ratings onto a bell curve. So the federal government, in theory, does not need the same kind of relief from the private-sector systems derided as “rack and stack” or “rank and yank.”

Given these differences, the takeaway for federal leaders should not be: We need to end performance reviews. The takeaway should be: We need to end performance reviews as we know them.

To genuinely mirror the movement in the private sector, federal leaders can enhance their current performance management systems – all within existing rules and regulations – by scheduling more frequent feedback conversations and by engaging in more real-time coaching to help employees achieve higher levels of performance.

While it may seem too late in the year to begin the shift, now is actually the perfect time. It’s true that you cannot make amends for any missed opportunities in 2015, but you can establish new expectations for you and your teammates for 2016.

Before your calendar fills up with meetings, you have a relatively blank slate for making employee performance feedback a priority in the coming year. Based on your number of direct reports, you can determine how often you should meet – at a minimum – and schedule those conversations now. Rather than trying to squeeze them into a limited timeframe, you have the freedom right now to pick and choose the best times for you and your employees.

In addition to increasing the frequency of feedback conversations, you also can take time at the end of the year to engage your employees in conversations about their professional development goals for the year ahead. What do they want to achieve? How do they need to develop to do so? What concrete opportunities can you identify together? How will you follow through on those ideas together over the course of the next year?

If you’re already having these conversations,that's great. If you’re having these sorts of conversations on an ad hoc basis, perhaps this offers a more official starting point. If you’re not having these conversations at all, now is the time to get started. Just be certain to provide yourself with a reminder to return to these plans during the next 12 months.

And while you may not have an app like GE to encourage instant feedback, determine the tools and techniques you could use even within your constraints. Maybe you could set aside an hour every week to write thank you notes to employees. Or you could use your commute on public transit to send short emails to your employees with simple feedback statements. You might make a commitment to walk the halls a little more often, affording you more opportunities to engage in performance conversations with your teammates on a daily basis.

Each leader needs to discover a preferred approach, but now is the time to make a pre-New Year’s resolution to provide your employees with more meaningful feedback and coaching. If you have any thoughts on this subject, please share your stories in the comment section below or email me at

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

Read also:

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.