The decay of performance reviews

Performance appraisal or check-ins? What is the key to rapid change?

The decay of performance reviews

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… my performance appraisal is near.

Setting the Scene

Let’s admit it. Chances that we will ever hear a Christmas song with the foregoing lyrics are rather small. Dear reader, I’m sure that most of you will agree that the yearly formal conversation on performance is not the best way to begin the year with. If so, you’re not alone. Kandar TNS conducted more than 4700 interviews worldwide on this matter. Almost 50% of the interviewees indicated that they weren’t evaluated on their performance. The goal of this article is not to summarize all the reasons why the dissatisfaction is that high. However, allow me to share one personal trauma to introduce at least one of the bad habits causing lousy evaluations of performance.

The decay of performance reviews

I have an exceptional sense of humour that allows me to tell the best jokes at the worst possible moments. One day I was working in Antwerp for a Dutch manager who combined his passion for expensive suits with color blindness. This unfortunately resulted in the worst combinations of colors ever seen. A week before my performance appraisal I made a joke during a coffee break. The joke involved his suit, clowns and crying children. Guess three times what my performance appraisal was about. This is what psychologists call “recency bias“. The tendency to evaluate others based on recent events of performance. And that’s only one of the mechanisms causing people to say that their performance appraisal was unfair.

About 60% of the employees therefore mentioned the ineffectiveness of these conversations. And their managers weren’t enthusiastic either. 58% referred to performance appraisals as not helpful when it comes to behavioral change. This is in line with other research on feedback concluding that about 60% of the feedback doesn’t lead to behavioral change or is making things worse than before.

Of course, that’s great news for someone like me. Having a strange relationship with research, I enjoy compelling numbers almost as much as I like red wine. However, it’s bad news for organisations. In a time where “Speed is the new currency of business”, according to Marc R. Benioff (CEO Salesforce), we need to change rapidly. We also need a communication methodology that helps us to change fast. Performance appraisals aren’t the right vehicles for this race. Apparently, our productivity didn’t increase that much since the seventies. Secondly, in times of information overload we need to (re)focus more often. Formal feedback processes, and let’s take performance reviews as an example, don’t provide an answer when it comes to ad hoc changes.

Moving Forward: Adobe

But nobody likes the bearer of bad news. I am a professional optimist, so let’s move forward. There’s a very effective habit for feedback that stimulates behavioral and organizational change. It starts with the story of Adobe. In 2012 Adobe, the world famous producer of graphic software, was troubled. Although their products were impeccable a lot of users didn’t decide to upgrade to the latest version of their software. “Too expensive” and “time to market is taking too long” were the most common reasons for the reluctance to upgrade. Adobe decided to shift towards a subscription model, Creative Cloud, making the programs more affordable and at the same time more up to date with faster upgrades.

The “Check-In” Habit

“Regular feedback” and “fast improvement” were two key requirements in order to make this radical move work. Therefore, Adobe launched, the habit of “Check-Ins“. These are frequent, future oriented conversations dealing with feedback, development needs and options for improvement. Check-Ins allow people and teams to have no nonsense conversations that matter. Due to the profound training on how to conduct a “Check-In” and making the latter a weekly or bi-weekly habit, employee satisfaction increased with 30%.

Check-Ins or the traditional performance appraisal

In that same year Deloitte, always at the forefront with evolutions thanks to their “Human Capital Trends” also introduced the habit of Check-Ins. Not only to improve performance but especially as a process which enables team leaders, coaches and managers to reach out to potential and existing talents.

Next steps: Building the “Check-In” habit

The concept of “check-ins” is simple. But making Check-Ins a habit is something else. Especially in times of scarce resources we should be critical on every hour spend. This matters even more in “billable hour” companies. For example, if we have half an hour for a Check-In, what will we talk about to make the conversation a worthwhile investment? If a new coach doesn’t have a clear outline of the routine (when will I ask which questions and how) it will be very hard to make a difference. The timing of a Check-In, the topics during the conversation, report out, and progress tracking are some examples of key indicators that have to be defined in order to make Check-Ins work.

That’s why, in the next article, we will discuss with Deloitte on how they make “Check-Ins” a habit. In the meantime, happy 2019 and let it snow… let is snow.

Bram (CUTE facilitator)

Recommended reading

  1. D. Scott DeRue and Ned Wellman. 2009. Developing Leaders via Experience: The Role of Developmental Challenge, Learning Orientation, and Feedback Availability. Journal of Applied Psychology. 94-4 (p. 859-875)
  2. D. Morris. Death to the performance review. How adobe reinvented Performance Management and transformed its business. World at Work Journal. 2016 – 2.
  3. Engaging the 21st century workforce. 2014. Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends.
  4. E. Whitworth E. and R. Biddle. 2007. Motivation and Cohesion in Agile Teams. In: Concas G., Damiani E., Scotto M., Succi G. (Eds). Agile Processes in Software Engineering and Extreme Programming. XP 2007. Lecture notes in Computer Science, vol 4536, p. 62-69
  5. Oracle HCM Global Survey. From Theory to Action. A Practical Look at What Really Drives Employee Engagement, 2016-12.
  6. Peter Cappelli and Anna Tavis. HR Goes agile. Harvard Business Review. 2018 (March-April)
  7. Rewriting the Rules for the Digital Age. 2017. Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends.
  8. P. Strebel. Why Do Employees Resist Change? Harvard Business Review.
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