If you haven’t read Let’s Not Kill Performance Evaluations, Yet, by Lori Goler, Janelle Gale, and Adam Grant, in this month’s Harvard Business Review, I highly recommend it. It’s well-written, well-sourced, and an entertaining read about something few find entertaining: performance reviews. I also recommend Strategy + Business’sKill Your Performance Ratings, by David Rock, Josh Davis, and Beth Jones, which is referenced in the HBR piece. Each makes valid points about why we still need to have evaluations, yet they arrive at opposite conclusions: Goler, Gale, and Grant see performance reviews as an imperfect but still vital process that needs tweaking to make them more fair and transparent; Rock, Davis, and Jones see reviews, particularly the ratings and rankings associated with them, as a motivational drawdown.
The articles agree that performance reviews tend to leave most people feeling underappreciated and judged, and that’s because, regardless of format, nearly all reviews still follow a traditional, top-down structure that equates higher rank with greater wisdom, thus authority. These hierarchical structures worked fine 10 years ago, even less, when companies faced more straightforward competition and less frenetic market forces. But today, many of the people essential to staying competitive and delivering on strategy were hired expressly because they know something their managers don’t. In truth, management controls less than ever before, particularly as work streams increasingly include external people or people who report to others.
The articles do offer ways to bring the performance review up to date, offering peer reviews as a “first step” in the process or suggesting ways to phrase feedback that encourages a growth mindset. But neither piece goes far enough. In this new work reality, the “boss-employee” relationship needs to shift from an expectation that the employee performs for the boss toward a mutual coaching partnership, where both the reviewer and the reviewee have agency in the process—and a growth mindset becomes a shared pursuit.
So how can your organization restructure the evaluation process to incorporate input and foster a two-way flow of feedback throughout its managing hierarchy? I have a few tips and ideas on how managers can enroll their reports in going higher together.
By the time you get to the formal review, if there is a formal review, both parties should know where they stand. The performance review is not the time to let your direct report know that their brusque emails are being interpreted by other team members as dismissive, or that they need to show more initiative in taking on bigger challenges. Conversely, if you know your direct report is unhappy with your management style, don’t wait until the review period to bring it up. In fact, if you have a relationship of mutual influence and coaching with your team, any problem with your style of management will have been brought to your attention, because your team will feel invested and safe enough to broach the subject in a positive manner.
Schedule regular check-ins
Clear, open, and candid conversations should be had regularly with your reports—way more often than once a year. They shouldn’t just happen on the fly, though. Real-time feedback is important, but only if everyone on the team feels they can contribute, not just “management.” By establishing that each person has both a stake and a voice in the review process, your people will feel empowered to express their honest opinions.
The best way to ensure this happens is to schedule semi-formal, regular check-ins to keep everyone on track. Make sure that you ask people to come prepared to discuss their own issues, successes, and questions about both company and individual goals—whether they have changed, or where more help is needed. This is valuable time: Be sure to discuss both team member contributions—and your own—to make sure everyone understands their part in delivering strategic outcomes for the company.
You can also celebrate small wins in these meetings to let your reports know when they have done exemplary work. If you think something goes without saying, it doesn’t. Say it.
Peer review is more than just a good first step
Often, managers are unaware of just how well their direct reports perform—or vice versa. Someone can seem like a superstar only to be shown as a climber. Another may seem quiet and disengaged, only to be revealed as one of the most creative team members. Peer reviews help fill out the picture on each individual and help distinguish the innovators from the strategists, as well as the climbers. You’ll learn who on the team is first to work with others on their projects and who creates bottlenecks. This input isn’t just a first step that then gets filtered through a manager’s subjective lens, it’s a necessary element of the larger performance review to fully understand how each teammate is performing.
At Ferrazzi Greenlight, we ask each employee to provide the names of 2-3 people, from anywhere in the organization, who can speak directly to how they are performing. Executive assistants can name directors, directors can point to project managers; it just needs to be someone with experience or line-of-sight to their daily work and outcomes. Title and responsibilities are less relevant than how often people work together. Most important is that the individual gets to name their peer reviewers. That way, employees retain some control over the process, and it feels less authoritative and judgmental.
Just like in college, regularly scheduled midterm reviews help keep people on track for that all-important year-end final. And considering that most work gets done in teams, the group midterm is a great way to establish mutual influence—with and among your team members. At FG, we coach a practice called the Open 360, which is designed to help teams share with one another and managers the areas where they excel, but also areas where they can—and need—to improve to reach goals. Everyone understands that the purpose is not to nitpick or dogpile, but to share honest opinions in a non-threatening way that helps everyone grow and collaborate better. This discussion also helps you find out early who’s working above expectations, who may need some additional training or support, or occasionally, who may not be the right fit—so you can save time, money, and resources.
Performance reviews, formal or informal, rated or not, are never going to be anyone’s favorite part of their job, but they are needed. Organizations must monitor performance at both the macro and micro levels—it’s their rudder, and without it, progress is difficult. That’s why reviewing and rethinking evaluations is so important to companies right now. The solution isn’t complicated: Include feedback that flows in both directions (manager to employee and employee to manager) and create an environment in which all parties feel safe enough to speak openly and honestly in service of reaching mutual goals. Not only will this kind of performance review drive to higher outcomes, it will give everyone a sense of ownership in one another’s success.