Reviewing the Performance Review

November 14, 2012 Darcy Jacobsen

In my last post, I gave a rough outline of the state of the annual performance review and discussed the widely-held belief that the traditional performance review is a mid-century fossil.

While I was writing this post, I decided to hop on Twitter for a quick check on how people are talking about their performance reviews—just looking at the past three or four days.  I entered “performance review” and then filtered out all of the pundits and industry folks. While I did find a smattering of people who were proud of making it through a successful review (or just relieved), the majority of tweets had a different sentiment:

“Overheard” on Twitter

@luna624: I don’t wanna do my performance review self evaluation. Do. Not. Want.

@jasonwheatley: Performance review complete. I didn’t get fired, so, you know…whew. #anotheryeardown

@nicereminders: Feeling completely dejected and destroyed after the performance review I received from the central office. #killmenow

@Ooosh_E: First performance review complete – I can breathe again!

@Emmaleigh504: ugh. performance review time.

@MeredithSoleau: There’s no reason to keep bringing up the negative. I am 100% anti-performance review. No one likes them. Not even HR. #THRAC

@effinoutfitters: I just had a performance review at work. When I asked if I was safe. They said “reply hazy. Try again later”. #resumeHelpNeeded

@xMrPlanktonx: Performance Review at work #oops

@katiemuehe: Ooooh! A surprise performance review at work on a Friday afternoon?! Sounds gre– no, it sounds awful, actually. #PleasePassTheWine

@EmmaRWallace: Ahh, performance review, you’re killing me here!

‏@jocofro: Filling out my job performance review and I get to job satisfaction… What to say?


Why are performance reviews the subject of such scorn, exactly? And can anything be done to fix them? After all, reviews exist for a reason. We all need feedback on our jobs and opportunities to discuss concerns and goals.

Here’re some of the reasons reviews don’t work, according to experts:

    • They seem biased – Because traditional reviews are often given to one employee, from one manager, they hinge on that manager’s opinion, without much of a check or balance from an outside source. Since managers are only human, this runs the risk of not being objective. Employees worry when their future hangs on the mood or opinions of one single observer.
    • They ARE biased – I’m not suggesting managers are malicious, but the sad truth is that they are not omniscient. Traditional reviews usually reflect a single point of view, and that view is often limited or obstructed. One person alone simply cannot see the entirety of a another person’s performance. Outside perspectives are needed for that.
    • They are too little, too late Studies show that to have any effect, feedback must be given as close as possible to the behavior it references. Yet an annual review means that often months go by before a discussion is had. Because of this lack of timeliness, bad habits go unchecked. (Some managers will even refrain from giving feedback in the moment in order to have something to talk about during a review!) A long delay between action and reaction also offers opportunities for distortion and faulty recollection to creep in.
    • They have a short-term memory Remember that film Memento, where the guy could only remember an hour or two into the past? Studies show that managers tend to only remember a few months into the past, and therefore annual reviews really become a review of very recent history. Anything an employee did in the first half of the year is lost in the fog.
    • They time-travel Next stop: 1955! Reviews were drafted in an age where hierarchy reigned, where reviews were given, top-down, *to* an employee. The traditional review reinforces an outdated and unilateral relationship between manager and employee that is not reflective of today’s workplaces.
    • They accentuate the negative Too often, traditional reviews put most of their focus on things we do wrong. Studies show that positive reinforcement—that is, encouraging an action to take place—is far more effective than negative reinforcement.
    • They are repetitive Managers tend to be repetitive of old observations and advice, where evidence shows that employees do not forget, and feel browbeaten or as if they are running in place when they are offered the same feedback over and over.
    • The deck is stacked I once worked at a company where I was told that “a rating of 5 means you walk on water. No one gets that rating.” This is true in many organizations, where managers are told that they cannot rate their entire team highly, or they encounter difficulty with rating *anyone* highly. They end up effectively “grading on a scale”. Frustrated employees might get a glowing review but find that the point-based scale is still stacked against them.
    • They are tepid Some managers are conflict-averse, and so they play it safe in reviews and try not to rock the boat—giving feedback in broad, neutral terms or offering vague generalizations. All this produces is a wasted hour of everyone’s time.

All of this is pretty damning. But before we ready the chopping block, consider that performance reviews are also useful. They force us, in our busy work lives, to take time to stop and consider our performance and that of our employees, to let workers know that their work is meaningful, and show them what it means in the larger picture of company success. It also makes employees the center of focus, helping to plan for their progress and growth. And it offers an opportunity for a manager to recognize, celebrate and reward their achievements.

So how do we keep the good things and reform the bad ones?

My CEO, Eric Mosley, has some ideas.  Fixing the review starts, he believes, with data. In particular: crowdsourced data.

Eric has just published a new book that examines how crowdsourcing feedback can fix the employee performance review. Far from ditching the performance review entirely, Eric suggests that by adding practices and strategies that keep pace with today’s business thinking and technology, it is possible to create a new system that’s more accurate and embraces the wisdom of the crowds – the collective feedback and input from everyone in the company.

This makes good sense. Because crowdsourcing:

  • Mitigates concerns about bias, because it eliminates the single point of failure and draws from a wide pool of observers.
  • Focuses on what an employee is doing right, and encourages that positive reinforcement of behavior.
  • Offers timeliness and specificity, focusing on particular examples of behavior and offering real-time data to back up observations.
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