The myth of “one good thing, one bad thing” on a performance review

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A mistaken notion that many managers have is the belief that on a performance review they need to comment on and provide examples of both the good things and the bad things that an employee did over the course of the review period.  This is sometimes taken to the next level, where the manager says one good thing and one bad thing about each area of the employee’s performance. 

Here’s an example of something a high performer might see on a review:

Jeff exceeded sales expectations by 15%, placing him in the top 10% of the sales force.  Jeff was below expectations in submitting his weekly status reports on time, and the reports he did submit were wordy.

This is a mistake and this practice should be stopped.

First, I’m all for performance feedback when the employee needs to do something differently than what he is already doing.  This is the first thing that should be attempted to improve an employee’s performance.  The mistake is that this performance feedback somehow has relevance to the person’s annual review.  As stated in an earlier post, the performance feedback should have already been given by the time the review comes around.  In Jeff’s case, his review includes some feedback about what he should have done differently in regards to his status reports.  What makes this particularly damaging is that it makes it appear that Jeff’s performance is equally good and bad.  One part good (he led the team in sales) and one part bad (he’s slow in doing status reports). 

This creates a false balance about Jeff’s performance.  If he did, in fact, lead the team in sales, and this is the top line metric that everyone on the team is aiming to hit, then Jeff exceeded expectations, plain and simple.  By adding what he should do differently, Jeff will remember the bad, and forget the good, and he will walk away demoralized, angry, or feeling that he didn’t actually do well for the organization.  He will likely complain about his boss, his review, and the organization. He may well look for different opportunities soon after this review.  It’s a formula for losing one of your top performers.

By presenting one good thing and one bad thing on the review, you’re amplifying something that is minor to equal status of what is major.  This is a bad idea, so don’t do it.

Some managers do this as part of an effort to seem “fair.”  They feel that if they discuss both the good aspects and the bad aspects of an employee’s performance, then they appear more impartial, more objective, more balanced.  This is an incorrect assumption, because when you highlight the minor bad behaviors, you actually appear less objective.  The impression created is actually that of “having it in” for the employee, and the manager is now in a combative situation with a high performer.  Oops!

If you are interested in learning how to be more objective, I recommend improving your behavior-based language.

Managers need to remember most employees try to do good things and perform well 100% of the time while at work.  Also, these same employees were screened specifically to be qualified and capable to do their job.  Therefore it is highly improbable, if not absurd that when an employee goes to work, she does one thing good, and one thing bad.  If you have a full complement of employees who actually do one good thing, then one bad thing, then you and the employees have big problems that can’t wait for the review! 

It is more likely that minor, small things are the “bad things” that need corrective performance feedback, and you should be discussing these throughout the year and as they arise so that the employee has the opportunity to correct these.  Only if the employee fails to correct these behaviors after receiving performance feedback, and these behaviors had a substantive impact on the employee’s overall performance should the “bad thing” be mentioned this on the review.   

Yes, this means that you will be talking about fewer things that are negative on a review.  This actually means that you are focusing on the behavior and results that the employee brings to work, and will actually reflect a more accurate, objective review.  It will also correspond to what the employee expects to see on the review. 

This equal footing of “one good and bad thing” has been instituted systemically in many organizations, essentially designing-in managers to do bad work, and extending this myth throughout an organization.  In the spaces provided on review forms, you may have an equal amount of space provided for the positive and negative aspects of an employee’s performance.

For example, “Please comment on what the employee did well and the areas he/she can improve.” 

This is an example of current inadequate management design in that it systemically encourages managers to do the wrong thing.  If an organization insists on seeing what employees are doing to improve, a better design would be to have space in the review form that asks:

“What areas did the employee receive performance feedback during the course of the year?”

“Did the employee improve in these areas during the year?  What was the impact?”

“If they employee did not improve, was this improvement effort highly prioritized or otherwise important to meeting the team objectives?  If highly prioritized, what efforts did you have to identify ways beyond feedback to help the employee improve?”

“What was the impact, if any, of the employee not improving in the areas where she/he received performance feedback?”

At least this would provide better guidance for what a manager can say on the review without angering the employee and creating a toxic annual performance review.

Have you seen encouragement to comment equally on good and bad things on review forms?   Have you given or received reviews with the “one good thing, one bad thing” structure?  How did it go?

Related Posts:

How to neutralize in advance the annual toxic performance review

Why the annual performance review is often toxic

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 .


8 Responses to “The myth of “one good thing, one bad thing” on a performance review”
  1. Cheryl says:

    I had to Tweet this– it’s very insightful.

  2. Chris says:

    I’ve had exactly this review more than once before. Now they’ve added the bell-curve model that requires some 10% to need “improvement”. What do you think about such models?

  3. Hi Chris,

    Such models don’t make sense to me. Anyone who isn’t performing adequately needs improvement, and it’s a crazy guess on what that actual percentage of “needs improvement” is. If more than 90% are performing adequately then you have built in frustration into the model by definition, as you are going to tell someone who is performing well that they need improvement. That’s absurd. Additionally, I’m not a big fan of blanket, “Needs improvement” assessments at the end of the year. Why wait? If the person needs improvement, then this should be addressed and discussed during the year. When managers wait to reveal the “needs improvement” tag at the annual review discussion, it’s a formula for a toxic review. I discuss the tendency to wait to reveal where an employee stands in my article on “Toxic Annual Reviews.”

  4. Thanks Cheryl! There’s one good thing about your comment and one bad thing about your comment. (Just kidding!)


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