If the downsides outweigh the ups, it might be time for a rethink.
Earlier this year, research by Kansas State University (KSU) came to a less than startling conclusion: Nobody likes a critical job performance evaluation.
By studying how people view positive or negative feedback, Satoris Culbertson, KSU assistant professor of management, determined that even people who are motivated to learn and improve can be adversely affected by negative reviews, frequently making the process counter-productive.
The findings resulted from a survey of more than 200 employees who had just completed performance reviews at a large US university and compared their experiences to their goal orientations.
“Nobody likes to get negative feedback, even those who aren’t trying to prove anything to others, but instead are just trying to learn as much as possible,” Culbertson says.
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“Performance reviews can affect motivation, commitment and performance, which managers should keep in mind when evaluating employees. It is not so much that the performance review needs to be abolished, but we need to fix what is broken.”
Samuel Culbert, professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management, doesn’t quite see it that way.
"At some point in our career we’re all going to get a negative evaluation." – Anne Morrow
In his book, Get Rid of the Performance Review! How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing and Focus on What Really Matters, Culbert calls traditional reviews “destructive and fraudulent” displays of “power and subordination”.
Culbert says the performance review is one of the most insidious, most damaging, and yet most ubiquitous of corporate activities. We all hate it, and yet nobody does anything about it, he claims.
Well, almost nobody. The US-based Corporate Executive Board Company believes about 1 per cent of companies are, in fact, scrapping the process, deeming it angst-provoking and ineffective. Even a study by the Society for Human Resource Management has found that nine out of 10 performance reviews are unsuccessful.
Some organisations have responded by re-engineering their entire system. Instead of reviewing individuals according to individual goals, they’re evaluating departments against departmental goals, with managers included. Higher-level executives are judged by the aggregate performance of multiple teams.
Calling the shots
However, for the 99 per cent that have not and likely will not ditch manager-to-subordinate review systems, or at least significantly restructure them, Culbertson has some suggestions on how to improve outcomes.
“Instead of limiting ourselves to formal performance review appraisals conducted once or twice a year, we need to think about performance management as a system that is linked with the strategy of the entire organisation,” she says.
“We can actually make the most out of the system, but if we are only going to have once-a-year evaluations, we shouldn’t expect them to work.”
Because people view numbers differently, metric-based reviews are open to misinterpretation. For example, on a scale of one to five, managers might see a four as positive feedback, whereas an employee striving for a five might think it negative.
“This is where words are really powerful,” Culbertson notes.
“We want to make sure we are conveying to employees whether we are giving a good evaluation or describing something that needs to improve.”
Also avoid what she calls the “sandwich” approach: Offering positive feedback, then turning to negatives, and finishing with something positive.
“Sometimes it comes across as dishonest and not something people buy,” Culbertson warns.
Negative feedback, she emphasises, is not the same as the constructive kind, so managers should try to point out areas that need improvement, rather than focusing on what someone is doing wrong. Offer solutions and avoid negatives like “don’t” or “shouldn’t”.
In the firing line
Anne Morrow has been a human resources executive for 20 years, during which she’s seen employees kick a lot of own goals in their performance review while others hit home runs.
“The biggest mistakes most make are either being blasé about it or overly impressed by their own achievements,” Morrow says.
“Either way, the result is usually the same.
“While it’s true that some managers will just go through the motions of a review because it’s company policy to have one, don’t bet on it, so be prepared,” she says.
“What you get out of a review will almost certainly be proportionate to what you put in – be it a wage rise, promotion or just plain respect.”
Most reviews will also have a component for self-evaluation, where you have a chance to grade your own performance. Be factual, honest and assertive – not humble, resentful or boastful – and never come across as a know-it-all.
But if worse does come to worst and the review isn’t as positive as you’d expected (or hoped), don’t over-react.
“At some point in our career we’re all going to get a negative evaluation,” Morrow says.
“It’s important to remain objective. If you didn’t rate the five out of five you’d expected, ask whether you’re at least in line with the company average and, above all, how your boss thinks you can achieve the performance level you both want.
“Develop a plan to get there and then request a follow-up meeting to ensure you’re both on the same page.”
Bosses, she says, don’t like performance reviews any more than anyone else, but if you can show that you understand the reasons for their comments about your performance and a determination to act on them, the whole process might just be worth it.
Performance review survival tips
Be assertive, never aggressive
Take time to prepare
Realistically critique your own performance level
Be objective about the reasons for any negative feedback
Don’t go on the defensive
Draft an action plan for the future
Seek feedback from your boss post-review
Mark Phillips is an Asia-based writer and former editor of both Marketing and Franchising magazines in Australia.