Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Flipping the Performance Review

Death, Taxes, and Performance Reviews. Each is unavoidable. Each is inevitable. I confess. I have a thing against performance appraisals. I have never liked them, either as an employee or as a manager. Is there a better way?

I don't question their purpose but believe that the most common approach does more harm than good. Every organization has its wrinkle on the performance review but they all verge on the same basic format:
"Alfred, here is what you are good at. Here is what you are ok at. Here is what you suck at. Overall, you (exceed,meet,fall below) expectations. Let's discuss how you can improve."
As managers most of us have been trained to focus on employee "weaknesses" as a way of increasing performance. That's a mistake.

I subscribe to the Kathy Sierra and Malcolm Gladwell school of conducting performance reviews. Kathy Sierra would have us focus on strengths, not weaknesses.
Maybe instead of working on our weaknesses, we should be enhancing and exploiting our strengths? What if the price for working on weakness (and who even decides what is and isn't a "weakness"?) is less chance to be f'n amazing?
I agree with Sierra that "working on weaknesses" is just the wrong conversation to have with employees. It leads us towards a culture of stifling Gradgrind mediocrity where each employee is a "resource" that has to conform to an arbitrary, generic yardstick.  Performance reviews have become our TPS reports.

Most of us, except in egregious circumstances, already know our weaknesses. And in the context of high performance teams weaknesses for the most part tend to be self-correcting.

How can we flip the conversation of a performance review so that the conversation begins and ends with strengths?

"Alfred, what do you want to be great at? What do you want to be f'n amazing at? Does it coincide with our team goals? If so, what steps can we take and are taking so you can be f'n amazing? We want to find your passion and see if there is a way you can go after it, no holds barred!"
If you are going to be great at anything, f'n amazing at anything, then you have to put in at least 10,000 hours. That's from Malcolm Gladwell and I believe it. There is nothing magical about 10,00 hours. The point is that you can't be great at anything without building up sweat equity and going after an over-arching goal with single-minded focus.

The traditional performance review simply does not work for High Performance Teams. It's time to flip the conversation It's time to make work into environments where people can become F*N Amazing.  Agree or disagree?


  1. Cool! I'll show this to my Dean ;)
    10,000 hours? Okay... the only things I am F'n good at so far are sleeping and running.
    I've read about this theory as it applies to meditation and brain function.
    5 years, 5+ hours/day, would make you f'n amazing at whatever you choose I guess.

  2. Nice idea!

    Flipping the conversation seems a good element to include in a restructured performance review process.

    I believe many large companies are at least aware of the problem, even if they, or their individual managers, haven't been able to abandon a concentration on improvements -- possibly at the expense of morale & motivation required to become the best f'n employee. For example, one large US corporation I'm familiar with calls weaknesses (i.e. areas for improvement) "opportunities". Attempting turn a negative into a positive. At least their choice in words seems to acknowledges they're cognizant of the problem with pejorative terms.

    As for me, I've always held a Confucian tinged management view - it is the role of the 'enlightened' manager to ensure the success of his reports. The obverse also holds: it is the role of the employee to ensure the success of his boss. Through Confucian colored glasses, a well ordered system results in the entire organization aligning with the principals of heaven and success will result. Personally, opening the doors for an employee to becoming f'n amazing at their job is an element, provided that success at work is key to their view of success. As you point out - their idea of success needs to align with the team goals.

    A complementary idea ‘flipping the conversation’ is to ensure management is free with authentic, fair and deserved recognition all year long - not just during the performance review (a study I just came across this AM in another context looks at impact on recognition on performance:

    On a more personal note, I also favor the 360 degree reviews. Despite my best efforts, I'll always have bias in my self-assesment, which can be corrected with input from all sides. I suspect most folks suffer from this sort of bias.