Rethinking the Performance Review

Some of the hottest business topics today center around how to give effective employee evaluations and whether feedback helps people succeed at work.

For example, if you are manager or human resource professional, do you look forward giving 360-degree feedback to your employees – or to your boss? Does it encourage employees to improve their performance?

Let’s face it: Many managers and supervisors dread giving feedback. In two surveys conducted by leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman (each of nearly 8,000 managers), 44 percent of managers reported that they found it stressful and difficult to give negative feedback. One-fifth avoid the practice entirely. Even more surprisingly, nearly 40 percent of leaders conceded to never giving positive reinforcement to their employees.

Moreover, if you are an employee, think back to the most recent performance evaluation you received at work. Did you look forward to receiving it? Did it motivate you to learn and enhance your work performance?

Likewise, a lot of employees don’t like receiving feedback because when it’s given within the shadows of constructive criticism it stings and conveys a notion of what author Eric Berne used to call “I’m OK; You’re not OK.” No one wants a blazing “Not OK” label placed on their performance evaluation and professional reputation. So most people reject any constructive criticism that walks, talks or even resembles the slightest hint of “Not OK.”


Hopes and Dreams

Perhaps the reason some employees dread performance evaluations is that not all constructive feedback is actually “constructive.” Rather, many companies and organizations utilize the three “Cs” of feedback -- candid, consistent and critical -- to evaluate employees’ past performance rather than focusing on future improvement. It’s not surprising that this type of feedback conjures less-than-warm feelings and engagement from employees.

Worse yet, criticizing employees with a recap of everything they did wrong during the past six to 12 months does not enhance their ability to learn to perform better. According to research conducted by Richard Boyatzis, a psychologist and professor at Case Western Reserve University, peoples’ brains respond differently to critical feedback versus positive feedback. Critical feedback activates brain circuitry for anxiety, so people respond by regarding it as a threat, making it harder to learn new, productive behavior.

Boyatzis’ research indicates that focusing on peoples’ blunders during their performance evaluations may diminish their desire to learn new skills. On the other hand, constructive feedback that focuses on an employee’s positive goals and dreams activates brain centers that energizes a person’s ability to focus better – which can lead to better performance on the job.  As Daniel Goleman, who is best known for his work on emotional intelligence, said, “Bottom line: don’t focus on only on weaknesses, but on hopes and dreams. It’s what our brains are wired to do.”

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall highlighted a constructive feedback technique that was utilized by Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry to help his initially struggling team learn to excel and win more football games. “While the other teams were reviewing missed tackles and dropped balls, Landry instead combed through footage of previous games and created for each player a highlight reel of when he had done something easily, naturally, and effectively,” the article reads. “Landry reasoned that while the number of wrong ways to do something was infinite, the number of right ways, for any player, was not. It was knowable, and the best way to discover it was to look at plays where that person had done it excellently. From now on, he told each team member, ‘We only replay your winning plays.’”

When applied to the performance evaluation, this feedback technique can help generate a sense of accomplishment and motivation. Employees go back in time to recognize and become reacquainted with their personal and unique pattern of excellence and the reality of what it looks like. As a result, employees can learn, repeat and even focus more on how to improve their personal version of excellence to become even better.

Freedom to Fail

Today’s economy is increasingly competitive, and the workplace is ever-changing. In order to achieve success, employees need to commit to the pursuit of excellence. It can be said, however, that some of world’s most influential and successful people have failed – and sometimes more than once or twice. 

In fact, according to a report published in Scientific American, failure can make people smarter and more creative. For example, potato chips, Post-It Notes, pacemakers, penicillin, and Silly Putty were all created by a person who made a mistake. Likewise, to get excellent performance, companies and organizations should provide safe spaces in which the right kind of mistakes are encouraged, valued and leveraged as opportunities for employees to learn. As the saying goes, “Making mistakes is better than faking perfections.”

Unfortunately, even the most well-meaning manager often resorts to providing only negative feedback after a problem or error because there simply isn’t enough time to meet with employees about performance. Nonetheless, employees still want regular and meaningful feedback that will help them grow and contribute to the organization. In fact, instead of yearly reviews, many employers are now choosing to check-in with their employees more often.

This is especially true for young professionals. As PricewaterhouseCoopers recently outlined in a strategy piece on the future of work, “How to Manage the Millennials,” new talent "want and value frequent feedback. Unlike the past where people received annual reviews, millennials want to know how they're doing much more regularly." But even with frequent check-ins, employers must make sure the quality of the check-ins are good. In a recent article, Stuart Hearn writes that this “frequent feedback needs to be accompanied by regular coaching conversations.”

Ethical feedback

Employers are also starting to discuss not only employee performance – but well-being. Hearn points out that a 2018 report from Deloitte reveals employees want expanded well-being programs, especially younger employees. It claims there is a correlation between well-being and performance. That’s why more HR technology is making work easier for people, so employees can find time for yoga or mindfulness classes – and in turn are more productive, the survey pointed out.

Being on the same page with employees is particularly important, because it’ll --- hopefully – keep employees around longer, which creates a more stable work environment for everyone. Knowing the right way to give feedback creates a less stressful and more enjoyable work environment – and that means more productive employees.

Ethical constructive feedback that focuses on helping employees do better work – and be better people – is imperative to help each employee thrive, whether by helping an employee create a growth mindset in order to learn a new skill, enhance creativity or improve productivity. Performance evaluations can and should be a special time to encourage, rather than criticize, in order to help and care about employees not as "human capital," but as humans.