By Dale S. Rose, Ph.D.
Virtually every leader dreads giving (and receiving) performance reviews. There are too many to complete, they take too long, and assuming it is online, they are either too clunky to navigate or over simplified. Worst of all, when employees receive their feedback, they are almost certain to be unhappy with the result – possibly to the point of completely ignoring the details.
So, why bother?
That kind of thinking got about 6 percent of companies to experiment with abandoning performance reviews altogether around 2014. There was a burst of press about the idea that made it sound cool and smart because many of these firms were well known and no one in management particularly liked them in the first place. However, even those of us who are math-challenged will notice that 94 percent of companies continue to give annual reviews to employees. But why? Simply put, the traditional performance review process is alive and well because they provide: a) documentation of poor performance for legal defense, b) a simple way to allocate rewards based on performance, and c) a regular time for managers to provide guidance to employees on how to improve.
The first two of these reasons exclusively benefit the company, but feedback for improvement is quite valuable for employees and managers alike. Unfortunately, helping employees is where performance management falls most flat. 3D Group’s research suggests less than half of employees agree with the statement, “my last performance evaluation helped me improve.”
The trendy idea of eliminating performance ratings did not change the face of performance reviews, but it did do a great job of pointing out the need to make the process more valuable. So, how can performance feedback be made more valuable to employees and managers?
There are two areas are most ripe for making feedback more valuable. First, the message can be made more clear, more relevant, and more personalized. Virtually all feedback systems allow managers to write open-ended comments. Unfortunately, these comments often leave a lot to be desired. 3D Group’s research has shown only about 25 percent of open-ended feedback is of high quality.
To be most useful, written feedback should be specific, timely and include examples. For instance, instead of writing “Communication could be much better,” a manager should give the feedback specificity with “e-mails tend to be too long and response time on e-mails is often two days when it should be fewer than 24 hours.” Additionally, it helps to provide an example. Add to the feedback a statement like “for example, last month I asked for an update on our most important account on a Monday morning and I didn’t get a response from you until lunchtime on Wednesday.” This kind of detail allows an employee to understand the problem enough to correct it.
The second area ready for improvement is the process and timing for giving and receiving feedback. Too often, performance reviews are completed as a moment in time with no follow up. Effective feedback allows managers to follow up with employees when they repeat the behavior. In the above example, you can imagine a future e-mail reply to the effect of “thanks for the update, but as I mentioned in our review, this information took too long to receive – I need these kinds of replies in under 24 hours.” Notice a critical feature of this example is the feedback lives beyond a single annual event. Good feedback sets the stage for a productive ongoing manager-employee dialogue to align performance with expectations.
Probably the most overlooked opportunity for improving performance reviews is to provide positive feedback when employees are doing well in some aspect of their job. A good review provides a balanced reflection of an employee’s performance – letting them know what they did well is arguably even more important than corrective feedback. It is quite difficult to get someone to succeed only by telling them what they did wrong. They also need to know what behaviors to continue or to build on.
The same principles of specificity, timeliness, and using an example applies when giving encouraging feedback. For instance, a manager might say “You have excelled at building a talent pipeline on your team of motivated high potential employees, such as Jamahl, Dani, and Helen. This will be extremely valuable as our organization expands.” Even this feedback can be followed by a related comment for improvement that opens the door to ongoing dialogue. The manager might add something like: “I worry some of the incredible talent in your organization may be stagnant with nowhere to go in your department – let’s discuss opportunities for them in other parts of the company so we can leverage the talent you’ve built.” Again, this example illustrates how good feedback is ongoing and creates dialogue around performance and expectations well into the future.
If you do it right, the performance management process prompts ongoing conversations and further informal feedback that help employees know where they stand, where they contribute value, and how they can modify their behavior to be even more effective. Smart companies realize they need to evaluate performance regularly and for that reason performance management is here to stay. So, rather than putting in a half effort on your next set of reviews, take it upon yourself to make the feedback valuable for you and your employees.
This article was originally published in Credit Union Management.
Dale S. Rose, Ph.D., is the President and Co-founder of 3D Group. He is an expert in leadership development and assessment-based human resources solutions. He recently co-edited The Handbook of Strategic 360 Feedback and authored the 2019 study, Current Practices in 360 Feedback, 6th Edition.