It’s that time of year again — when so many of us are dragged kicking and screaming into summarizing the year, rating employees and writing a mini version of War and Peace for every direct report. No wonder why performance management has such a bad rep! But it doesn’t have to be this way. What if the reason end-of-year performance reviews are so painful is that we’ve been doing it all wrong? Check out these tips for a fresh perspective on this end-of-year ritual.
Prioritize alignment. The biggest mistake we make is to assume that performance management is about managers “approving” or “disapproving” of their employees. Really it’s a business tool to help both managers and employees align expectations, especially around what work gets done, how it gets done and how the manager and employee will work together to make that happen.
Develop a partnership. The other mistake is to stick too closely to a top-down approach. In the worst cases, this is where a manager views himself as a wise old owl who bestows approval, or lack thereof, once a year by either anointing an employee to most-favored-status or branding them a “poor performer.” Sounds harsh, I know, but this is how workers in some companies actually view the process. The fix? Start thinking about performance management as a dialogue between employees and managers and you’ll be surprised how quickly the focus shifts to how the two work together. This approach still calls out individual accountability but takes into account different perspectives while building trust and communication.
Focus on the work. Whether your company uses performance ratings or not, make no mistake: Performance is getting evaluated. And it’s always important to remember that you’re evaluating the work, not the person. So phrases such as high or low performer should be changed to high or low performance. While the distinction is subtle, it can go a long way toward reducing the fear and resentment employees can feel when they think they’re being evaluated. After all, work is fluid. My leader not being pleased with a result I delivered may not feel good, but at least I know I can change results. However, my leader not being pleased with me sets up a paternal dynamic that risks me spending time either avoiding his wrath or resenting him … or both.
Practice year-round performance management. The number-one reason end-of-year performance reviews are such a pain is that we treat them as if they equal performance management. They don’t. End-of-year reviews should be a summary of your many discussions throughout the year. Done right, the end-of-year review is actually the smallest part of the process. Of course, that can only happen if employees and managers are checking in quarterly to evaluate the bigger picture, look at trends and discuss lessons learned. Any one-on-one meeting can become an end-of-year performance review practice run as long as you shift the discussion away from the day-to-day and toward the larger picture.
Find another time for discussing career goals. Because most managers tend to talk about everything in one messy conversation, they create an expectation that end-of-year conversations will be about raises and promotions; what they are really supposed to be about is reflecting on what worked, what didn’t and what to focus on in the coming year. The solution? Simply schedule a separate meeting to discuss an employee’s career goals. Ideally, this should happen as soon as an employee begins reporting to a manager and then once a year a month or so after performance reviews are complete. This ensures managers have career conversations with every employee, not just those they consider “high performers.” It also helps inform goal-setting for the year and, maybe best of all, takes the pressure and awkwardness out of career discussions for both the employee and manager.
The less we view the performance review process as a policing tool and the more we see it as an opportunity to collaborate with our employees, the more value everyone will get out of it.