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How To Use Your Performance Reviews To Actually Improve Performance!

Michael Couch and Richard Citrin

Holding annual and mid-year performance reviews is a time like no other where managers spend time trying to write meaningful comments, and employees are holding their breath, hoping that their good work is recognized, and their failings aren’t used against them. And all this is done in the hopes that HR will be happy and leave them alone for another six months.

In my last corporate role (Richard), my boss didn’t believe in performance reviews, even though we were expected to complete them for our team. She told us that we should know what to do at our senior level and didn’t need to be reminded or told. While I welcomed the freedom of not having that meeting, as a psychologist, I know that people need performance feedback to continue doing the good stuff and learn how to improve the bad stuff.

In our book, Strategy-Driven Leadership, Michael and I advocate for eliminating performance reviews and instead using facilitated talent review discussions. With that process, the focus is on identifying the capacity and capability of staff members and developing a plan to help them maximize their potential and performance.

When we do this exercise, one of the most important takeaways for leaders in organizations is to see how so many of their team members are solid B players. Everyone thinks that you want lots of A players, but the truth is that most work is done by those folks who are dependable, “get stuff done,”people. In one situation, a manager hired several bright, capable strategic thinkers. While they made great plans and had plenty of strategic road maps to share, they often missed deadlines, and work was not delivered at the expected level.

Another essential element of talent reviews is that it is focused on the professional development of team members rather than just the assessment of their performance. That factor will be significant this year as companies, especially in the tech space, hunker down and work through what has already become a tech recession. Companies will want to do their best to retain their best players and demand that average players contribute moreas hiring slows and firings increase.

That can’t be accomplished by simply telling people to perform better. Elon  Musk demonstrated that these past several months at Twitter, where heranted about everything from Twitter’s search capability to how Twitter engineers aren’t tracking and eliminating bots fast enough. You mean, it doesn’t get immediately better when Elon yells?

For most people, as was the case for me, I wanted to get feedback from my manager. If she shared her and other’s perspectives (which is how a talent review works) I know I would have been an even stronger manager and contribute more to the mission. Providing this information in a way in which it is offered rather than imposed also makes a difference. Creating a culture where employees look forward to feedback, because it is done in a respectful way and helps strengthen performance and career opportunities, creates a powerful engagement tool.

For managers, regardless of whether you use a formal performance review process or not, there are several actions you can take to make learning a year-round opportunity for your team members as well as for yourself:

• Cascade development expectations down through your organization: Model the best way to discuss performance, provide ongoing development opportunities with your direct reports, and hold their feet to the fire regarding how they develop and hold their team members accountable for performance.

• Development discussions should occur 20 minutes into the regular meetings with a team member. These sessions maybe every other week or once a month. Holding that discussion mid-way through your appointment means it doesn’t get cut off because “the business has to come first,” and there is no time to discuss the learnings. The best managers we work with never have trouble finding those 5 or 8 minutes; for most of them, it is one of the more enjoyable moments of the regular get-togethers.

• Tie these regular discussions to the ongoing mission and objectives of the business or department. Questions such as “give me some examples of how improving your listening skills is helping you to be more effective in your work and to what benefit to our group?” This kind of “ownership” question reinforces for the employee why developing that skill is essential and that they are better able to see it as a personal competency and to continue to use it and even expand it further.

Your Human Resources department will probably never get past using performance reviews as a way of documenting job quality, and that does not have to keep you from using your approaches to making the process meaningful by focusing on helping your team members develop into the people they are truly meant to be in the workplace.