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Perspectives: Performance Reviews Reimagined
July 05, 2017

Performance Reviews Reimagined

At many organizations, the end of June triggers a cycle of “mid-year” performance reviews and career dialogs. For both the manager and employee, this can be an event filled with anxiety and trepidation. Why might this be the case? I suggest it is a difference in expectations between the two parties and to be frank, a lack of skills and abilities on the part of both parties to make the undertaking a useful and productive exercise. In this newsletter, I want to focus on some of the things an employee can do to help improve the experience for all concerned.

Please note that I am using the terms employee and manager throughout this missive with the understanding that the employee is a direct report to the manager. However, I believe that the approaches provided below are equally as effective even when the employee is in a leadership role him or herself.

So, what are the expectations of an employee going into a performance dialog? Well, if they are optimistic, they may see these meetings as an opportunity for the manager to acknowledge their work, highlight specific successes, provide actionable, reinforcing feedback to support continuous growth and even map out a path for their career progression and personal development. In short, the employee enters in to these discussions with an expectation of being provided with affirmation, encouragement and support. They are also likely to want to focus on further developing their strengths in support of achieving their full potential.

In reality, the employee will may well hear some generalized statements about their contribution, e.g. “you are doing a good job”, and quite often a recounting of some of the mistakes they have made along with what they should have done differently. Feedback if provided at all, will often address specific behaviors that the manager finds to be irritating or unproductive. The career progression conversation may center around the idea that employees need to “pay their dues” before considering any future role in the organization or alternatively, that any expectation of transferring to a different role outside the department will be viewed as disloyalty. Quite a difference in expectations!

Now admittedly, these are two extreme perspectives designed to make a point. Most employees are not so naive in heading into a career conversation that they expect to leave pumped up and with all the answers they need to ensure career success in hand! And most managers are not going to focus solely on correcting, advising and tempering the career aspirations of their employees. Still, it is highly likely that some degree of “disconnect” or misalignment between the manager and employee will be present.

As a consequence of the difference between the idealistic expectation of the employee and the reality of the conversation, employees often dread the “negative feedback” experience and eventually see the whole exercise as a waste of time (at best) and humiliating and denigrating at worst. This can also trigger a defensive attitude that can turn to cynicism. Hardly a recipe for organizational success!

In this newsletter, I would like to focus on things that the employee can do to make this process more meaningful, valuable and impactful.

What can you (as an employee) do?

While performance reviews and career dialogs are often seen as a unidirectional process of the leader doing the telling and the employee doing the listening, I don’t believe it has to be that way.

The first thing you can do is to work at getting out of “victim or reaction mode” and take on an equal part in owning and leading the process. This “self-leadership” ensures that both parties are actively contributing to make the process productive and useful. If you seek an alignment of purpose between your interests and those of your manager and organization, a lot of the fear based fight or flight response can be eliminated.

Here are some additional tactics that you can use to exert some influence over the success of the meeting.

1) Define Success

Most of these review meetings are an hour or less, so that 60minute period is not going to be enough to “solve world hunger”. Therefore, it is worthwhile considering in advance what needs to happen in order for you to consider the meeting to be valuable. Are you seeking affirming or corrective feedback? Do you your work to be acknowledged? Are you looking for guidance on your personal and professional development?

I suggest focusing on no more than two or three topics at any given meeting so that there is enough time to have a meaningful dialog. In addition, I suggest that your agenda should not account for more than half the available time so that the manager’s agenda is respected as well.

2) Inform Your Manager

Once you know the nature and topics you wish to cover in the meeting, the next step is to actually inform your manager of what they are. I suggest sending the leader an email highlighting the specific things you want to discuss at least 48 hours in advance of the meeting.

Your intention in directing at least part of the conversation is not to ambush anyone but rather to help focus the conversation so that it better meets your expectations. For example, if you are particularly proud of some work and/or outcomes you have accomplished, state that you would like to share these with your manager. He or she may not have a good grasp of all that was involved and will appreciate better understanding the challenges you faced and how you dealt with them.

To overcome our natural inclination towards humility, it is often helpful to think of things in absolute rather than relative terms. Thus, you can do something well, without being "the best" at it. Putting things in relative terms often feels like we are bragging or diminishing others. Putting things in absolute terms becomes more of a statement of truth than "bragging".

3) Create a Process That Works

Receiving corrective feedback is difficult for most people because it triggers our ego fear of failure. While it is impossible to predict how the manager will provide such feedback, all employees can help their leader by expressing the manner in which they would like to receive that feedback.

One of the most powerful mechanisms I have come across was taught to me by Phil Mittertreiner of Potential’s Unlimited. Quite simply, most “feedback” is actually assessment and advice, i.e. “You did poorly on this and here is what you should have done instead”. This approach is rarely effective and can be highly destructive.

A much better approach is to ask for specific situations or observations, e.g. “I noticed that you have been late to our team meetings, four weeks out of the last five”. This approach creates a space for you to explain and/or commit to change in a way that the former "assess and advise" approach does not. It is specific, tangible and allows for you to decide on and take the necessary corrective action.

Advising your manager that you would like to receive your feedback (both affirming and correcting by the way) in this format will make it easier for them and more useful for you.

4) Don't Cede Control

Ideally a performance review and career dialog should be a conversation between equals with admittedly different roles. A gross imbalance of power in the meeting will undermine its effectiveness, so, if you find that you are being “put on the hot seat”, feel free to state that you will “need some time to reflect on that”.

Quite often, these reviews can seem like a bit of a test and there is an implied expectation that you’ll have all the answers you need immediately at hand. That isn’t likely nor is it fair so you needn't respond out of fear or negativity. Rather, direct the energy in a way that suits you and if you need some time to reflect upon something, ask for it and make a commitment to follow up.

Another good approach is to redirect the question back to the manager so as to better understand his or her perspective. For example, “I am not sure what I would do differently given the situation, but I am interested in how you would have handled it. Will you share your thoughts with me?”

5) Summarize

After the meeting, it is always a good idea to summarize your understanding of what transpired and what you have taken away from the meeting. This demonstrates your commitment to personal growth and development in a very positive manner.

I would caution against providing corrective feedback to your manager at this point unless you have a very strong working relationship with him or her. However, sending your manager a follow up note thanking them for the time and effort they put into the review and making some clear observations around the meeting increases the chances that they will embrace these approaches more readily in the future. For example, you may state: “I noticed we started our meeting on time and I felt respected as a result”.

Any manager who believes they "know it all" is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Providing affirming feedback as suggested above is hugely supportive of their growth as a manager.

A Different Model

Some organizations, specifically a number of management consulting firms that I am familiar with have chosen to divide the responsibilities for feedback up between a number of different parties in the organization.

While there is no perfect solution or “one size fits all” approach to making the performance review and career dialog process a win-win for both manager and employee, these firms have chosen to separate the various activities to different people within the organization with the following notional roles.

Manager The manager is often the project manager or the individual responsible for making sure that the work being done is on time, on budget and with the desired quality in service of the client. This is a tactical role and because both the employee and manager are close to the work – the feedback tends to be more specific and in real time. When a deadline isn’t met, everyone knows about it. In this day to day activity, learning and improvement is done without the need to protect the employee – manager relationship because such relationships only exist for the duration of the project. There is little opportunity for the sort of paternalistic relationships that can develop in a more traditional hierarchy where managers protect their employees and the relationship they have created with them, potentially to the detriment of the work.

Coach/Mentor A number of firms provide a senior leader to coach less senior employees in the firm. In my opinion, such coaches should have actual coach training, but not withstanding that, these coaches are in a position to provide guidance through open ended questioning of what the employee is looking for in their career, how the employee feels things are going while providing suggestions to improve profile within the organization, gain exposure to better projects and challenge the employee around what is possible.

Advocate Each employee also has an advocate within the organization and it is these people who ultimately champion (or not) the employee to the rest of the organization. They connect with the Manager, Coach and sometimes the Employee and using information and insight from all these sources, petition the organization to continue to invest in and promote the employee if and as appropriate.

This segregation of duties approach offers some advantages (including not having your future career prospects limited to one person’s opinion) but it also has challenges in terms of accountability. A line of sight leader has to stand behind his or her opinion and assessments whereas in this sort of “distributed accountability” model highlighted above, the Manger, Coach and Advocate can all hide behind the “collective opinion” about what is truly going on. This lack of accountability can be frustrating for employees who may not be doing as well as they would like and yet don’t know who it is that is undermining their progression.

Another Approach

At the risk of coming across as self-serving, I think there is another model that merits examination and that is a mixture of the two approaches already discussed. Under this model, an employee’s manager would continue to act in the manager role providing regular and ongoing work and task related feedback. Often, this would be objective feedback based on budgets, schedules and quality (to whatever extent that was possible). The manager would ultimately retain accountability for championing the employee within the organization.

The companion piece of this model would be to assign a third party professional coach to conduct the employee development and career progression dialog part of the conversation. This coach, not being part of the company, would have no vested interest in the employee’s outcomes other than to help them be more engaged, empowered and skilled in the execution of the non-technical elements of their work.

My belief is that most employee performance reviews and career dialogs are ineffective at improving organizational performance and some may even be detrimental to it. Perhaps it is time to recognize that the expectations placed on managers is such that they can not be expert at developing employees and if this is the case, contracting it out to professionals seems like an obvious alternative.


Thanks for reading this issue of Leadership Perspectives and please feel free to forward it to anyone you feel might be interested. Should they wish their own copy, they can sign up at:

As usual, please don't hesitate to e-mail me with your comments at: Cheers, Gord Aker, PCC
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