I think I learned about workplace reviews the hard way. Or maybe the wrong way. I never liked them. I never did them very well. I’m glad to see Time to Review Workplace Reviews on one of the New York Times blogs.
During my consulting days, when one of my favorite corporate clients, a high-level manager, paid me to help him write the memos he’d arm himself with before going through his semi-annual reviews. He really stressed over it. He’d spend weeks worrying about it, honing his memos listing his objectives and accomplishments. And he always got great reviews; he was a great manager. His reviews did no good for him and no good for the company.
The Times story, posted by Tara Parker-Pope, quotes a clinical psychologist:
Annual reviews not only create a high level of stress for workers, he argues, but end up making everybody – bosses and subordinates – less effective at their jobs. He says reviews are so subjective – so dependent on the worker’s relationship with the boss – as to be meaningless. He says he has heard from countless workers who say their work life was ruined by an unfair review.
Later, as I was managing my company as it grew from zero to 40-some employees, the alleged need for reviews simply made me feel bad because I didn’t do them well or regularly. Some people wanted them and were disappointed. Others hated them. These were people I worked with, shoulder to shoulder, every day. I never figured out how to suddenly change personas and issue grades.
And there was that one horrible time that we tried what they call a 360 performance review system. That’s where everybody sort of reviews everybody else. Anonymously. That was awful. Try morphing a teenage popularity contest with anonymous poison pen comments and see what that does to your office politics.
So what works?
I’ve seen objective metrics, like sales, costs, expenses, calls, subscriptions, downloads, visits, page views, minutes per call, or unique visitors work pretty well, especially when they’re part of a regular planning process. I still remember how well the metrics worked in my first job, as an editor for United Press International, when they gave us scores for how many newspapers used our stories instead of Associated Press.
I’ve seen ad-hoc instant feedback, especially the surprise bonus, quick and unexpected, work well. That was a great call, you handled that well, here’s a signed piece of paper, take somebody you like out to a nice dinner on us; that works. I’ve seen plaques (“on time and on budget”) and peer applause work.
I’ve seen a long-term management style of letting people own their jobs and their performance, without interference, work for a while, for some people.
After more than 20 years of running my own business, I still say one of the hardest things to do is good honest negative feedback. You’re supposed to give people both positive and negative, depending on their performance. Everybody sort of knows that. But it’s hard to do it in practice.