Annual reviews are awesome artifacts that can be used to improve management skills
The Manager by Designsm blog has documented many issues that annual performance reviews bring to the manager/employee relationship. I’ve written about how they are “toxic”, cause angst, and perpetuate myths both about employee capability and what acceptable management practices are.
But I’m not totally against annual performance reviews. Sure, I don’t think that they are effective at actually evaluating performance of the people they are evaluating, but I do think that they are extremely effective at revealing the practices of the managers conducting the reviews. They are a treasure of information that provides a window into how the manager relates to her employees, how she assesses performance, and the degree of effort taken to help the employees improve.
So I say keep the performance reviews, because this is the only infrastructure – however flimsy (I can’t elevate it to the level of “design”) — that many organizations have that actually require managers to perform management-related tasks, such as setting expectations and goals, assessing and discussing performance of the employees, and actually committing this to a document that demonstrates that this task has been performed.
As I’ve recently outlined in a series of articles, we can see how these basic tasks are performed poorly by many managers (and how to identify the markers of this) – but that is the beauty of the annual review. It is a marker, however brief, that requires these basic tasks to be performed.
Since many managers only do this once a year, we should not be surprised that managers do this poorly. After all, when do managers get performance feedback on how well they set the conditions for the review, on how effectively they wrote the goals, on how well they checked in during the course of the year with the employee, and on how well they stayed focused on the employee behaviors that led to achieving or not achieving the goals?
Marker #7: References to the goals
In most organizations, managers receive no supporting feedback on this core task of writing annual reviews, so it is no surprise that their growth is stunted. Imagine a soccer player who never gets coaching in his position. His skills will be poor to start with, and never improve. He’ll always be low level. This is how many managers are with annual reviews. This is one basic reason managers a) hate performing annual reviews and b) employees hate receiving them.
So should we scrap the annual review? Only if you have some other infrastructure where managers receive better coaching and feedback on how they are managing. But another option is to use this already-in-place infrastructure to help managers get better. To give them feedback on how well they did this, and give them a chance to improve at it. Use this artifact to understand where your management design falls short, how your managers are causing problems rather than solving them, and identify which managers are actually performing the management part of their job well.
Now — if you can get your managers to perform this basic, core task of writing down once a year what the employee has done and whether he has met the goals, then perhaps – maybe perhaps – this managerial skill can be extended to the rest of the year, and the core management skills will be, on the whole, improved.
This is an example of “management design” – designing in how managers can get better at managing, rather than simply hoping for great management to emerge from somewhere or waiting for that accidentally great manager to transcend the constructs that seem to encourage mediocre management.
Without this view for improving how managers conduct reviews, we will be stuck in the chronic situation where annual reviews are like a poison to an organization, and it gradually kills both the managers and employees.
Have you seen organizations that use the annual review as a baseline artifact to improve how managers manage?