Breaking news: People hate performance reviews!

I recently posted some “breaking news” to my Facebook and Twitter feeds about how a recent study confirmed, again and again and again, that people really hate performance reviews. This is no surprise really to anyone working in an organization. Even though in an organization where I consult, our recent employee engagement survey indicated that while people say they want to know how they are doing, it seems that once we start talking about performance review processes, we get two distinct reactions:

From leaders: “I don’t have time!”

From employees: “How much is this going to hurt?”

Both of those characterizations are, of course, over-simplifications, but it serves to underline that although we know in theory that feedback on our progress is good for us, no one seems to actually want it in practice.

So what’s going on here and what elements of positive psychology might help us to understand and improve the situation?

At a surface level, it seems pretty clear – leaders don’t want to risk having uncomfortable conversations about how someone might not be performing up to standards. Every workplace has stories about employees who have been there “forever” and doing a bad job, delivering horrible customer service and generally bringing down the world around them, yet no one has ever held them accountable for their negativity and poor performance.

From the employee’s side, there seems to be a lack of trust – that this process will come back to haunt me and be a blemish on my employee record. That if I’m not good enough, I’ll get fired. That if I ask for something to help me, it won’t get provided.

And so the status quo remains and no one gets any feedback.

There are some natural elements of positive psychology that can come into play to help this situation improve. First of all, what if we spent most of our time in performance reviews talking about what’s going well? What are the strengths of the employee, and does he or she get to spend time every day doing what he/she does best? This is at the heart of some of the Q12 questions by Gallup.

We can also work on building trust and safety by creating a positive relationship between the leader and his/her employees. With a positive foundation, then the critical feedback is easier to hear, as it’s less threatening. Positive psychology gives us some tools to use to create that improved relationship, such as Active-Constructive Responding, “other people matter” and creating a 3:1 (or better) positivity ratio.

But what I really think we need to focus on is removing the “annual” from the “annual performance review” and turning feedback into a consistent two-way street. For employees to receive meaningful feedback on their performance, that feedback needs to be as immediate as possible and as frequent as possible. It should also be conversational (e.g. two-way, involving the employee in the questioning and investigating) and positive (do you rigorously examine the root causes of success like you do with there is a failure?)

While this will help to build trust and safety for the employee, it doesn’t address the number one push-back from the leaders – that they have no time.

What are leaders doing instead of engaging in feedback conversations? They are doing work. However, the work of a leader is to develop others – not to do the work of others. Leaders need to learn to step back, let employees do the work that they were hired to do, and engage in more coaching and regular engaging feedback.

I’m interested in your thoughts and ideas here. What have “performance reviews” been like where you work? And is there even a better title for this concept other than “performance reviews”? I haven’t even started to touch on aspects like pay-for-performance (though we know money is a sucky motivator in the knowledge/innovation economy) – do you think performance reviews should be linked to pay, or are these completely different processes? (You can probably guess which side I favour…)

Thanks for spending the time to ponder this with me. I appreciate it!




Lisa Sansom

Lisa Sansom has her MBA from the Rotman School of Management, and over two decades of experience in teaching and training. Her years of work in the organizational development field have included projects on change management, employee engagement, leadership development, team coaching and employer of choice strategies.

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