Yip! It’s that time of year again when managers and employees go through the motions of participating in the year-end performance review process. When employees regurgitate all the tasks that they accomplished for the year and only squeeze out one or two areas for improvement all the while thinking, what a waste of time, my boss probably won’t read this.
When managers, in turn, wait until the last moment to review what the employees wrote and hurriedly add their input without much thought and care. Then a swift meeting may or may not be held where the manager spends 90% of the time reading the review aloud while the employee nods in passive agreement just to escape as quickly as possible.
Thus concludes another performance review cycle. So much time wasted and so much opportunity lost.
Though employees and managers might have a hard time being convinced otherwise, the field of Human Resources didn’t intend for this process to become so dreadful. It had high hopes: it wanted to ensure employees and managers maintain positive working relationships. Managers would coach employees through difficulties and guide them to achieve career success. Employees in turn would take ownership of their development by honestly communicating their goals and areas for improvement. What a win win! But these hopes obviously haven’t been realized in most companies.
So what can Managers and Employees do differently to make it better?
If you are a manager who gives performance reviews then you hold the most power in the review process. You can choose to do the work of caring about your people, guiding them and helping them live up to their full potential or you can ignore them fully: ignore their contributions, ignore their hidden potential and in turn make lives miserable and the bottom line suffer.
The choice is yours.
But performance reviews are an unneeded formality! I show appreciation and guide them in different ways!, you may argue. If you really are doing all that is necessary outside the performance review then there would be no need to complain because completing them would be a breeze. Here’s what’s necessary as a manager to successfully deal with performance reviews:
Give feedback continuously--not just twice a year! As a manager you should be communicating with each of your employees at least once a week to learn what they’re working on, what hurdles they are facing (and how you can help them), and what they recently accomplished. This is how you build trust and rapport. The feeling in these meetings should be positive and most importantly each person should be fully engaged. If you sense the employee is distracted, stressed or bored then ask the person right then and there what’s on his mind. Don’t wait! This tendency to wait is what often makes performance reviews so awkward for you and frustrating for the employee.
Keep a folder (digital or otherwise) on each team member that you’re responsible for evaluating. Keep feedback you receive from others about them and write quick notes to yourself during your ongoing meetings with them. Keep these notes as updated and organized as possible so that you can easily find them. This is the material you will later use for the mid and year-end review. And because you’ve been putting in the work to get to know your team members and to help them, performance reviews become a piece a cake and dare I say—enjoyable—to complete.
Be as objective as possible—use factual events and examples to back up your rating choice. When the time comes to write the performance review and provide a performance rating, resist the urge to completely give into your personal feelings about the employee (it’s not 100% avoidable since it’s a human tendency). If you genuinely dislike the employee you’re reviewing then you’ll likely come up with ambiguous reasons why they deserve a lower rating despite their great performance. But in these instances take a moment to think about why a particular employee rubs you the wrong way. Be brutally honest with yourself. Do you feel outsmarted by them? Do you feel threatened by how quickly they’ve succeeded thus far? Are you afraid that they’ll outshine you and you’ll be viewed as ‘less than’ if they progress further?
Wake up and put your ego aside! Catering to your ego will only get you so far in business (and in life for that matter). You need your people to outshine you because if you played a supporting role in their meteoric rise (as you should have) then you’ve succeeded as a leader and people will notice. This is the real meaning behind having performance reviews: to formally influence employees to become their best selves which in turn benefits both you and the company.
If you are an employee receiving the performance review then I feel your pain. You work so hard in your job, putting in long hours to ensure deadlines are met. You contribute ideas to help the team become more efficient and you’re proactive in solving problems, yet your boss barely seems to notice. Now you’re asked to ‘prove’ your value on a form by writing out all that you’ve done in a year and where you need to improve. You know you’ll have to review this with your boss so you play it safe by only listing the big accomplishments and not the little things you did that set you apart. You also aren’t completely honest about your faults and what you need to work on to improve—doing so would only be career suicide you reason! Even though your manager has more power than you in the performance review process doesn’t mean you’re utterly powerless to steer your career in the right direction. Here’s what’s necessary to deal with performance reviews as an employee:
Keep a folder (digital or otherwise) on yourself. Store all emails containing the accomplishments that you’ve done throughout the year: projects that you led or contributed to, team members that you helped, ideas you gave, etc. This will likely require you writing quick notes to yourself at least weekly to store in your folder. If you’ve also received feedback from either your boss or another employee throughout the year put that in the folder too. You want to review this to determine what actions you did (or didn’t do) that led them to give you this not-so-stellar feedback.
Be honest with yourself. If you feel that you can’t be completely open with your boss about what you need to improve because you just don’t have that kind of relationship (I get that) at least be completely honest with yourself. If your job feels like your soul is slowly dying and you’re becoming a shell of who you once were—and I know many, many employees feel this way—then it’s your responsibility to change your situation. By continuing to go through the motions and put up a front to conceal your misery you only exacerbate your experience. Changing your situation doesn’t always mean finding a new job, you can work to change departments, change managers and find a different role within the same company. People are excellent BS readers so your boss and everyone around you will figure out that you’re seething from within. It can hurt your chances of getting an opportunity that you really want or—worse yet—get you fired. Remember, you are the leader of your life and that includes your career.
Figure out what you ultimately want. This work is often the toughest, but it’s at the heart of a successful performance review. A great boss will try to learn from you what you ultimately want in your career even if it means you leaving her team and pursuing a radically different career path. A great leader will help you do that. But your manager will never be able to help you if you don’t do the work necessary to figure out what you want. Pay attention to the activities that you do both inside and outside of work that make you feel energized, happy and alive. The smallest thing can trigger an epiphany about what you should be doing with your life. Call it passion, purpose (though don’t call it passion to this guy or he might cuss you out) or what have you, we all should be honest about what it is for us and do it already.
So whether you’re a manager or an employee I hope that you take the time this performance review season to re-think its intent and do the work to make it better for everyone involved.