I was recently quoted in the NY Times on the subject of preparing for annual performance reviews.
The fact is, performance reviews are extremely stressful. Some business professors argue that we should drop them completely. Far too often, rather than providing benefit to the organization and useful feedback and a promotion to the employee, they only promote the Peter Principle.
Performance reviews can benefit both the employee and the organization, but they have to be done correctly. That means starting by establishing and agreeing upon goals. Of course, even that is tricky, as goals require actual thought to do well. The key point here is to identify desired outcomes and then focus on the behaviors and learning opportunities that will lead to those outcomes. Taking the time to focus on and identify productive and effective behaviors produces the most effective goals. It also means the performance review is now focused on providing the employee useful feedback and opportunities to build their strengths instead of arguing over failures and getting wrapped up trying to remediate weaknesses.
On that point, it helps considerably to recognize that people have both strengths and weaknesses. Yes, I know, this is a great shock to some people, particularly many managers. Tailoring goals to fit people’s strengths produces far more motivated, enthusiastic, and productive employees than goals that are focused around “fixing” their weaknesses. Don’t get me wrong: weaknesses that are based in a lack of knowledge are eminently fixable; but those that are based in a lack of fundamental talent or ability are simply frustrating to everyone when you try to fix them. If you give people some room to experiment and, gasp, fail, you and they will quickly figure out which is which and how to best focus their time and energy. Build people’s strengths enough and their weaknesses matter less and less.
The other key point on performance reviews is to provide specific feedback: it doesn’t help to tell someone they are “too aggressive” or “too passive.” That is your perception. Tell them exactly what they did that you saw as aggressive or passive. Good or bad, the details matter if you want someone to repeat a positive behavior or end a negative one.
Performance reviews can be a waste of time and energy or a powerful tool to improve performance in your organization. Like all power tools, you need to use them correctly.