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September 2010


Samuel Culbert has written a provocative book that answers the above in the affirmative. In short: get rid of them!

The reasons aren’t arcane or esoteric. Ask what the purpose of a performance review is and you’ll usually hear that it’s meant to identify and incentivize high performers, give accurate performance read-out to all performers, and contribute to a development plan for people. The aim is not ‘judgmental’ but ‘developmental’ we often hear.

Much of this is of course poppycock in practice. If you have a boss-dominated hierarchical system of review, where the subordinate is being “evaluated” and the boss, allegedly draped in a cloak of pseudo-objectivity delivers the assessment, here are some things that are almost inevitable.


First, the boss will apply their own lenses, agenda, personal peeves and paradigms to the review. Why is that of much real value to the organization? Whether this happens consciously or unwittingly we can leave aside. It would require a quite fantastic view of human nature to believe these elements won’t seep into a largely one-sided assessment.

Second, someone being so “evaluated” will tend to curry favor with the evaluator (especially if salary, bonuses, promotion are all implicated). Or if they cannot summon the personal contortions that may be necessary to do so (in the event that the two personalities grate on each other and the chemistry is bad), they will tend to emotionally disengage, knowing that they will be less valued than others with better boss harmony. Now, “boss harmonics” is not usually a performance criteria a business wishes to take to market.

Furthermore, if an employee doesn’t hit goals or targets, where in the process is there any assessment as to the sanity of the goals in the first place or the appropriateness of the support, resources or coaching provided? If it’s simply about whether the goal was hit or not, who is to say whether a good, relevant, strategy-furthering goal with appropriate metrics was established, explained and enabled together with the employee being “evaluated”?

It can be even worse. Suppose someone does hit goals – say sales targets. And yet let’s suppose in interacting with their customers, they gain insight into a product or service enhancement. However, to take this up would require engaging in significant politicking with other corporate fiefdoms (functions or divisions), and may require taking time and energy away from just getting product sold. If exclusively evaluated on sales of current product, the person will very likely just hunker down and focus there. The business may later lose significant upside or customer loyalty or brand extension benefits by insulating itself from such insights from the front line, but that will hardly perturb our sales “star”.

In fact, one-dimensional goal setting, and top-down hierarchical evaluation will often produce people showing up as stars in performance reviews and getting promoted, by being outstanding in narrow areas, defined by that often blinkered corporate silo viewpoint, while the business potentially loses share, detaches from customers, or otherwise spirals downwards.

This isn’t a John Grisham novel — the above happens every day. And then this embarrassing “star” if the business trends get unavoidably bad, is given another plum job elsewhere in the network, while a savior is sought for a rescue in the now ailing area.


To compensate for some of this, many performance reviews have dimensions other than business objectives. These often include pablum-like items such as “works well with others” and “shows leadership ability” or even “shows a positive mindset”.

Don’t get me wrong. I call them “pablum” because they are afterthoughts. They should be woven into the objectives as stated. An example might be, “Expanding sales by working collaboratively with marketing, R&D and finance to deliver profitable, customer satisfying growth.” Or even for a sales rep, “Building up your territory working with colleagues, selling “x” number of widgets and bringing customer insight back to the company that helps us profitably grow.” Multi-dimensional is better, as long as terms are then defined.

But detached from actual business results, this hodge-podge of character traits sounds like a school-child’s report card and leads to even more preening in front of the boss. After all, how will a boss possibly know whether you “work well with others?” It will be based on what they observe. And you will then be unlikely to rock the boat, offer audacious if originally unsettling ideas, confront others when they are basking in the glow of the boss’ approval and will probably take other similar shortcuts that produce the death rattle of a performance culture.


As for how developmental the performance review is — how is the review itself ever evaluated? By mood surveys perhaps, or else by how much time is taken on them. While not irrelevant, this is a bit like applauding the laboriousness with which a government tax department produces yet another bureaucratically complex form and cheering how much time they’ve invested in creating the monstrosity. Yes, it shows dedication, but if we’re dedicated to something bogus, or misleading, that’s hardly something to crow about.

The biggest upholders of the performance review are the HR Department. There are visionary HR leaders who actually understand their job is to support the manager in coaching and developing their team-members to deliver performance relevant to the interests and strategic direction of the business. But they are rare…almost as rare as congenial immigration inspectors (many of whom seem to believe that gruffness and rudeness somehow enhances perspicacity and enhances their ability to keep their country safe).

For many HR departments this is a power grab, or rather a way to maintain their power base. They administer, warehouse and “own” these assessments. It gives them something to do beyond recruitment, occasional trouble-shooting, compliance and administering health and retirement plans.

Of course there are many things that need doing in the people and talent space other than this — but most of these should focus on learning and performance not dubious appraisal.

Negative comments are even kept on file in a bewildering example of fixated obtuseness. Why? It is a point-in-time perception by one boss in one situation. Now, if a real pattern emerges, I understand being a student of the evidence. But if not, as soon as it’s clear it was an anomaly or an isolated perception, toss it. And it’s not for legal purposes. If someone has performance issues, you document those. That’s not an argument for constructing an overpriced, ponderous edifice based around documenting everyone via the performance review.


For a performance review to be valuable and to enhance the boss’ viewpoint, two other things are trotted out which rarely work well either. The first is a 360 review of the person which should inform the view of the manager.

These can be very useful for a coach, who truly will use them as development input. These can be powerful if they lead eventually to face-to-face 360’s or at least 180’s (boss and peers) where anonymity is removed and real accountability-based relationships have to be built. No, it won’t happen overnight, but that should be the destination and bold courageous steps should be taken en route to it.

But as they are usually done, people either chloroform their views (because from the sample size they know their views can be identified inductively even if kept “confidential”) or else use the anonymity (if it’s a larger sample) to drive the knife in if they have disputes with the person or some other agenda to advance.

Why is feedback considered so “toxic” that all these barricades have to be built to oh-so-carefully let someone hear views in so detached a way? Many of these views they must anyway see in evidence, behaviorally, every day. Why not learn to directly engage views already held? How else can you possibly help those views to constructively evolve?

The other approach is to send managers on training programs on how to conduct performance reviews. But how is the curriculum selected? How well versed are the instructors in the performance management system of this company? Does anyone test what was learned from the session? Is there any tracking of application? The best of these include role plays that simulate the performance review. But even here, as it has little to do with actual content, it becomes about style and mechanics. “Close the door,” “look them in the eye,” “listen before you give your conclusion,” “put things positively.”

Again, all of this is powerful, when applied to a process that is actually developmental and which gives someone a real performance read-out rather than a popularity rating with the boss, or a chat that skirts any really contentious areas because the person is seemingly average (and so, why bother getting animated?).

But we need to re-imagine the performance coaching process (which is what should really be happening) not find ways to administer stylistic pain killers after we whack people around…or as bad, doing the linguistic equivalent of wearing a clown’s outfit and providing cheerful inanities while someone coasts along not meriting much attention in either direction. “Hey, but I closed the door, smiled and looked them in the eye while doing so!”


Okay, so what’s the alternative? We surely can’t dismantle the whole edifice of performance management and leave nothing in its place.

Two transformations are possible. First, there should be two non-negotiable, inviolable rules to any such performance conversation — which if unobserved should be reported like harassment or an ethics lapse.

Number one, all goals the person is evaluated on must have relevance to company strategy — that connection should be clearly worked out and shared with the employee. And there should be, as Culbert calls it, a performance preview. We at Sensei have for years advocated this, calling it a “shared results conversation”. So a strategically relevant set of goals that actually advance company results, not just functional efficiencies, with a performance preview between boss and direct report “activates” a performance coaching period.

The preview establishes the goal, its relevance, agreed metrics, what the direct report needs from the manager, what the manager expects to see in terms of output as well as behavior (behavior relevant to delivering the result, for example “customer engagement” or “spending time with influentials understanding the trends in the credit market” not irrelevancies like “not leaving work until 8 pm” or “keeping your desk neat” or “giving more presentations at meetings”). It is a mutual results, coaching and engagement contract. That is then tracked, and both manager and employee have “skin in the game” relative to the goals.

Number two, nothing can be mentioned that is negative or requiring improvement in the performance review, which should happen often and not at one bureaucratic moment in time replete with all the arcana of HR oversight, if it has not already been brought up in real-time with coaching and an opportunity for improvement. If it’s important enough to bring up now at a formal review milestone, it was certainly important enough to be flagged when it was happening and something could be done about it. What sense does it make to stockpile grievances and then unload them on someone haplessly having to absorb this after-the-fact, and who if they disagree then will get blacklisted for “defensiveness” (i.e. not agreeing with the self-evident wisdom of their boss).

And a bonus reformation should be, to move towards frequent 360 opportunities, and even more frequent 180 opportunities, face-to-face, again in the spirit of accountability, mutual support for success, effective and constructive challenging and reciprocal coaching.

And here’s a brilliant role for HR! Help people gain these skills, support managers and their direct reports in delivering their performance contracts, backed with whatever learning, education and other stimulus is needed. Ensure the goals set actually link to strategy by making sure senior leaders are comfortable endorsing and even sponsoring the departmental must win battles.


So should we get rid of performance reviews or not?

Well it then comes down to definition. If we’re defining the performance reviews as they seem currently in vogue — demonstrably anachronistic, insidious, invidious, hierarchical, top-down dog and pony shows that encourage employee obsequy, promote disingenuous and vapid tap dancing around key issues, and which exalt boss perspectives and forced ranking and invite politically heated competition among people for scant “star” status, overseen by a power-grabbing HR junta, then as my rhetorical embellishments suggest: we should dump the whole rotting, overpriced, unconstructive, debased downward spiral nonsense for what it is.

But if we define a performance review as a true moment in time along a coaching and development continuum, ignited by a proper shared results conversation, a performance preview, with shared accountability, on behalf of goals that are hard-wired to strategic business priorities, supported by HR partners whose job it is to help catalyze the success of these performance contracts and provide the development resources and reinforcement necessary, and leaders are judged on the success of their direct reports every bit as much as their direct reports are judged by the quality of their performance results and the quality of their team membership, and if there is ongoing feedforward (future based requests for raising the bar) in real-time, and movement towards a face-to-face set of accountability dialogues between bosses, peers and direct reports, dedicated to coaching each other to achievement…then let’s hang on to performance engagement (previews, coaching, reviews, constructive confrontation, supportive reinforcement) for all we, our people and our businesses are worth.

Only when we know where we stand, will we move in the right direction. But let’s make sure it IS the right direction — and only real performance engagement will meaningfully light the way.