Get performance reviews you will love

A cartoon manager gives review to employee
Image credit: Randy Glasbergen

Note: I co-wrote this article with Adriana Colina. An original version was published February 2019 on LinkedIn. In this new version we add new discussions, references and format changes.

Aaaah that time of year when office workers around the world dust off the old thesaurus to find words that will convince management that “I am a team player” and “my effort resulted in millions of dollars of revenue”: Performance review time.

And. We. All. Hate. It.

You know this already, right? Searching for the phrase “performance reviews are the worst” returns quite a few resources, many of them recent. In discussing a 2018 article that surveys the history of performance management, a BBC article quotes its author saying something that feels very cathartic for some of us:

They’re really toxic and people hate them. You’re creating artificial steps just to check a box.

Knowing the pervasive animosity against such corporate feedback processes, we explored the question: How can we get useful performance reviews that would leave us happy and reassured?

Last year one of us got contacted by a long time friend and former coworker who needed professional recommendations for a job. The recommendation included a list of projects with their goals and a description on how our friend contributed to successfully completing them. It occurred to us this was a sort of performance review (mind you, leaving the “opportunities for improvement” out of the public letter and only sharing it privately with the friend). Writing it and talking with her felt great. And she said it too felt great to read and hear this from someone she trusted. What makes a review from a trusted source that much different than one from an employer?

Animosity against performance reviews has been documented and studied for quite a few years. A 2014 Washington Post article discusses a study by psychologists at Kansas State University, Eastern Kentucky University and Texas A&M University. Using prior research, the study separated subjects on 3 groups based on how they approach professional goals. Researchers then examined the effects of positive or negative feedback along these three goal orientation dimensions and found: People who are highly motivated to learn responded worst to negative feedback. Those who focus on obtaining good reviews by performing well also had the worst response to negative feedback. And those who avoid negative evaluations by pulling away from assignments they might fail… they also had stronger negative relationship between negative feedback and satisfaction.

In other words, we all hate being told we made mistakes.

A 2013 article also from Washington Post, “The corporate kabuki of performance reviews” (don’t you love Jena McGregor’s headlines?) explains how neuroscience research shows that activity diminishes in certain regions of the brain when our status is threatened due to being told we need to improve. It quotes author and Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute David Rock:

people’s fields of view actually constrict, they can take in a narrower stream of data, and there’s a restriction in creativity.

Given the data, employers acknowledged that once-a-year reviews are universally despised and also realized annual evaluations held people accountable for old behavior instead of improving current performance and growing talent. So they started dropping annual reviews since at least the early 2000s, and implemented agile approaches like having more frequent and informal conversations. A 2016 Harvard Business Review article explains this evolution of performance management and why it shifted. Companies now try different approaches like the Real-time 360 Review where people are evaluated by everyone with whom they interact.

But going back to the “performance review” with our friend, it is now evident that it was more positive and valuable because none of us felt threatened. Scientific research is needed to generalize this assertion, however we believe from our experience that format, type of questions or even frequency of reviews don’t have as much of an effect as the relationship between both people.

We believe that format, type of questions or even frequency of these reviews don’t have as much of an effect as the relationship between both people.

The two of us combined have 45+ years of experience inside both public and private sectors. We have encountered different types of evaluations, some more technical than others. But at the end of the day it seems that everything has to do with the perception of whoever is reviewing the other person.

The effect managers have on employees’ performance and engagement has been known for long. Gallup measured the engagement of 27 million employees and more than 2.5 million work units over two decades, and found that direct supervisors account for 70% of variance in employee engagement. And the Harvard Business Review conducted one of the many studies that found a strong correlation between employee engagement and revenue.

Even with agile evaluation approaches, the relationship we have with a reviewer fundamentally affects the outcome. On top of that, there is a power dynamic there that we are not sure can ever be eliminated.

Additionally, how well an employee performs is directly related to the performance of the manager. In most cases, the direct supervisor conducts reviews. Employees receive information, directives and feedback from that supervisor, and thus evaluation results of a team are closely related with the boss’ performance, i.e. what we normally refer as “being setup for success” or “being setup for failure”. But in many cases, this factor is not considered when doing reviews.

Additionally, how well an employee performs is directly related to the performance of the manager.

By the way — other important factors are normally ignored as well. For example environment, resources, social stability, security, health. Even though they are external to the workplace, they play a very important role in any person’s development. This especially happens in countries with ongoing social and political conflicts where general conditions directly affect people and their job performance.

But let’s go back to the trusting relationship between reviewer and ‘reviewed’. Did you know that Gallup data also says that 69% of managers and leaders are uncomfortable communicating with employees? But with a friend we talk easily. There is not threat of losing our job or not getting the bonus. The reviewer has pretty much nothing to lose or gain.

Did you know that Gallup data says that 69% of managers and leaders are uncomfortable communicating with employees?

What this means for you, company leadership, is that it is essential to invest heavily in finding and training good managers (duh). And for you, employee, is that your professional network is a hidden treasure for improving your talent: let’s make it a practice to get frequent performance appraisals from trusted people. You also need to evaluate your manager and not be afraid to seek a new job if they are not good.

Your professional network is a hidden treasure for improving your talent: let’s make it a practice to get frequent performance appraisals from trusted people.

We have to avoid being affected by subjective criteria that arises at a certain moment, an out of context situation or simply personal opinions. A good exercise is to ask people we trust to give us a performance appraisal. It is important to hear from a third person who is not connected or has a specific interest, and ask their opinion about what we are doing well and where we can improve.

Considering these 3 principles:

We want to recommend some ideas on creating and maintaining a structured process for getting performance appraisals from people you trust.

What to ask. Even when you are not looking for a job, it can be useful to accumulate professional recommendations. Ask your colleague to write two letters- a public one “to whom it may concern” like the typical recommendation, and the second one addressed to you where they provide feedback on what to improve. Another option is to use the same format from your workplace. Or you can follow a more structured, short and direct approach by asking three questions: What should I stop doing? What should I start doing? And what should I continue doing?

Whatever approach you choose, there are plenty online and offline resources on what questions to ask in order to obtain useful feedback. The general idea is to ask direct questions or give people clear prompts. This article from The Muse has good examples and recommendations.

When. Just like at work, do it as often as possible. Perhaps make it part of your regular get-together. Another option is asking for feedback immediately after you interact or they see you behave in a professional setting.

Who. Everybody you trust and have seen you behave in a professional setting:

Who to trust or knowing who is qualified to give feedback can be tricky. A good advice from business consultant Steve Tobak is:

I’ve seen brilliant, accomplished, famous people back some of the most obviously stupid ideas you can imagine. When you consider a source, forget things like title and wealth. Use your own gut instinct. And triangulate. Then, when you’ve got opinions from trusted people, make your decision on your own. After all, you’re the one who’s going to have to live with it.

Motivation and marketing trainer Brendon Burchard provides straight-on advice on building a “strong and empowering peer group” for feedback and support:

You want to find the people in your life who know how to give good feedback, and you want to ask them for more of it.

How. Make sure you record and date them. If writing takes too much time, ask the person if they are comfortable with recording a conversation.

Conclusion

Many times there are elements in work relationships that do not allow us to have fluid and direct communication. This can cause bad interpretations, prejudices or false expectations that end up being part of performance reviews. We hope to have inspired you to actively seek additional feedback from trusted sources, or that these ideas help you obtain more effective feedback. This practice not only help us see where we are failing and how to improve, but will also reaffirm all those positive aspects that will propel our motivation and feed the self-affirmation of our value as professionals. 💜

Please join the conversation…

What do you think? Do you have other recommendations or approaches for getting feedback from trusted sources? Let us know.

And thanks for reading!

Software Engineer with a professional background focused on interactive 3D applications, mixed reality, virtual reality and related middleware.

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