Why the annual performance review is often toxic

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Many managers dread the annual performance review, and for good reason. The annual performance review requires the manager to put in writing exactly how they think the employee has done over the course of the year.  It’s a lot to cover, and can create some pretty tense and toxic situations if you get it wrong. 

By “getting it wrong,” I mean that the employee disagrees with what you documented. The employee who disagrees with what the boss wrote has to either challenge the boss (not always a good scene), or accept something they don’t agree with that has career-level impact.  

If an employee steps up and disagrees with your performance evaluation, you, the manager, have many options, none of which are good: 

–You can change the text of the review to the employee’s specifications. “Whatever you say!”

–You can say, “Sorry, but I’m keeping what I wrote in there.”

–You can say, “Let’s agree to disagree.”

–You can follow up with an investigation as to what really happened, from multiple perspectives

–You can say, “Go to HR if you have a complaint.”

–You can say, “Let’s remove what you don’t agree with.”

As I go through the options a manager has when there is a disagreement — or more commonly seen from the employee’s perspective as a “surprise” — on the review, it should be clear that disagreements over what is documented on the annual performance review should be avoided!  And I’m not even covering the pay-related ramifications (which are usually set prior to the review being given) of having an unaligned performance review.  Unfortunately, this variance between the manager and employee is something that frequently happens with unskilled managers.�

Has this happened to you either as manager or employee?  Here’s what is going on:

First note that it is called the annual performance re-view. That means that, in theory, the manager and the employee are looking at the employee’s performance again.   Under this logic, there must have been a time when there was the performance view.  Unfortunately, too many managers wait until the annual performance review to do both the view and the re-view at the same time.  This conflation of view and review is highly likely, as this is the only time that many managers have any sort of requirement to comment on an employee’s performance.  The rest of the time is pure freestyle, and completely up to the manager.  A manager may think that by meeting this annual requirement of documenting performance on a review, they are doing their job adequately.  After all, if it was important to discuss performance at other times, it would be required. 

Note: For you aspiring management designers, please consider that under this design, the only time many managers truly feel obliged to discuss performance is once a year!  That is bad design and should be improved!

Through this dynamic, employees are conditioned by their manager and the underlying design of “once a year feedback” to expect an assessment on their performance only during the review, i.e., waiting until the review to get the initial view into the manager’s interpretation of the employee’s performance. 

Of course, it is absurd to wait for the re-view to provide the view, because when this happens, there is likely a large divergence between what the manager writes down about the employee, and what the employee expects the manager to write.  Even worse, without a view into the manager’s thoughts throughout the year, the employee will start to hope that the manager writes something in particular (usually highly praiseworthy), which is probably even more divergent than what ends up documented.

In my next post, I’ll be providing tips on how to avoid the annual toxic performance review, and turn it into the annual performance review (without the toxicity).

Related Posts:

How to neutralize in advance the annual toxic performance review

Employee strengths and weaknesses discussions should be purely strategic — with examples!

Five reasons why focusing on weaknesses with employees is absurd and damaging

Bonus! Five more reasons why discussing weaknesses with employees is absurd and damaging

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


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