Positive annual performance reviews

In my MAPP (Master of Applied Positive Psychology) program at the University of Pennsylvania, we took a course on Positive Psychology and Organizations. The course was largely focused around Appreciative Inquiry, which I use in my consulting practice, but there is so much more to a positive organization.

In my mind, a positive organization should encompass some, if not all, of the following characteristics: positive strategic vision, positive corporate mandate, positive work processes, positive leadership / management, positive teams, positive physical work environment (also sometimes referred to as physical health and safety, but I suggest that a “positive physical work environment” goes much, much further), and positive performance reviews.

Tara Parker-Pope, in a recent New York Times blog, cited authors and researchers who are petitioning to trash the annual performance review.

Thanks to Readers' Digest for this Banana Performance Review comic!

 This argument has some merit to it: performance reviews are stressful for both parties (the manager and the employee), and may be completely meaningless with little or no impact on actual job performance.

I’m not entirely sure if we should completely abandon the annual performance review. Perhaps we should look at what works, and enhance it. Here are my two ideas on it:

1. Enhance the current system. Performance reviews, just like any summative evaluation, should not be a surprise. By the time the final test comes in a course, you should know what you are going to be tested on. Similarly, by the time the annual performance review comes about, you should know what is going to be discussed. So instead of abandoning the annual cycle, how about supplementing it with regular, on-going feedback between the manager and the employee, where both parties get to discuss what’s working, what isn’t working, and how both can work together to increase performance according to agreed-upon metrics? The summative performance review may influence bonus payments, promotional opportunities and so on, but the final outcome should not be a surprise.

In order for #1 to work, all employees and managers would need training on giving AND receiving feedback (because there are learnable skills on both sides of that equation). Training on coaching skills would also be helpful, and managers may benefit from on-going coaching circles, for example, to share best feedback practices amongst themselves.

2. Create a deliberate positive component to the performance review. At my son’s school when he was learning to print, he would print an entire page of capital letter As (for example). He could then circle his best A, and submit that for the teacher to review.  This allowed him to do several things: he got to practice without penalty, he could critically appraise his own work, and he would then be assessed on his best performance. What would the work world be like if we all got to do that? Can you imagine a performance review where you get to choose your best projects, and discuss those with your supervisor? We know that we get better when we focus on success, and sports psychology and educational psychology researchers have borne this out with many audiences ranging from basketball players to elementary school children. Is it such a stretch to imagine that employees might also do better by focusing on their successes?

In order for #2 to work, we need to abandon, or at least modify, our current deficit-based thinking. We tend to believe that we can correct errors by analyzing them and fixing the problem. What if we could correct errors by focusing on the successes and creating more enabling environments and opportunities for more success?

What is your experience like with performance reviews? Are you aware of any companies using any positive performance review techniques or processes? And if not, would you like to learn more about the possibilities? Please comment and share your ideas. Thank you.

(And a very big THANK YOU to my MAPP classmate Paula Davis-Laack who posted the link to the NYT blog in a LinkedIn group that we both belong to. I’m truly fortunate to have such a great positive community that is always sharing ideas and support!)

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.

Reader Interactions


  1. Jeremy McCarthy says

    I am so over the traditional “checklist” type of peformance review. But I’m not ready to go completely to the positive “AI” approach. As a review recipient, I want to know not only areas of strengths to focus on, but also areas where I may need to approve. That being said, I think the main goal of a performance review should be to motivate and energize your employees by making them feel really good and pushing them in the right direction.

  2. Saigon says

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