Executive Director's Blog: Building a Great Team, Part Three

Performance Reviews:  The bad and the good

This is the third in a series of posts on how to build a great team.

For many, this is performance review season, the annual ceremony that direct reports fear and managers loathe.  Those up for review dread being assessed - judged, if we use the word that more accurately reflects how the ceremony makes us feel.  Those delivering the reviews are equally wary.  They face a minefield of potential unintended consequences.  It’s no wonder so many of us try to put the things off.  I had a peer who was habitually a year late in giving reviews to her team!  What follows are observations, lessons learned and tips on being reviewed and reviewing others.

Why we don’t like them


We are open to certain feedback

People are fond of saying they are open to feedback.  At work; in relationships; as you bite into their overcooked salmon at a dinner party.  But what they really mean is that they are open to hearing positive feedback.  They tend to be less open to feedback that is less than flattering. 

Judgment aversion

Underpinning the anxiety of a performance review is a basic human aversion to being judged.  From the dawn of time there have been dire consequences to being judged harshly.  As a result, we are conditioned to be cautious when entering a situation where we will be assessed.  Often the caution far outweighs the potential danger, and this holds true for performance reviews:  Physiologically, we are in fight or flight mode when, in fact, the worst thing that is likely to happen is our boss says we need to improve.

High stakes

When performance reviews are tied to promotion or salary raises, the dread increases tenfold.  In this scenario one person’s judgment impacts a direct report’s livelihood.  With adrenaline flowing and heart rate elevated, it should not be surprising if a direct report behaves defensively or emotionally.  For some, a performance review is the fulcrum between their work life and their personal life, its outcome impacting them and their families in material ways.


Complicating the review process is the fact that everyone responds to personal critiques differently.  I once gave two individuals very similar assessments.  One left the room energized and focused, having accepted my challenge to improve in a particular competency.  An hour later the second individual left the room in tears.  Same feedback; different results.

The bad and the good


Strive for balance

Lest anyone think that managers enjoy the review process, consider their dilemma.  If you judge average and weak performers too leniently, you tacitly encourage them to (a) remain in the organization and (b) continue performing at their current level.  What’s more, their high-performing coworkers will feel demoralized when they see that their own standards are higher than those set by their manager.  Judge top performers too leniently and you risk starving them of opportunities to grow professionally.  Top performers tend to be development-hungry; if you don’t challenge them to improve they feel starved.  Counterintuitively, by heaping praise upon them without accompanying opportunities to grow, you will drive them to seek a more challenging opportunity elsewhere.  On the other hand, judge your team too harshly and you risk breaking your team’s spirit, leading them to believe that their worklife is doomed to be a Sisyphean existence.  No matter what they do, they cannot satisfy the boss.  Consequently, they will do as little as possible until they find an exit strategy.

Inherent one-sidedness

Performance reviews are designed to be one-sided, which makes them inconducive to productive dialogue.  At its worst, a manager walks away from the review feeling heard and effective, while the direct report walks away fuming because he or she had no opportunity to express his or her perspective.  This is one of the primary reasons experts advocate so strongly for ongoing feedback throughout the year between manager and direct report.  These less formal check-ins are much more conducive to candid, two-way communication.  The stakes are lower; the venue is more casual; and there is no HR template sitting on the table between you.  If feedback has been honest and ongoing throughout the year, the one-sidedness of the formal review isn’t as problematic because the direct report will have already had plenty of opportunities to share his or her perspective.

Living to work or working to live

There are many amusing “principles” about how various groups view work.  We all know people whose entire identity is tied to their position.  We all know others who simply slide by without ever letting work stress them out.  Everyone is somewhere on this spectrum and it behooves managers to figure out how their direct reports view work in the broader context of their life.  Some individuals crave responsibility.  Some simply want a raise.  Some want to make a difference in the world.  Without knowing what makes a direct report tick, a manager will use a one size fits all model for reviewing and motivating their team members.  A generous raise given to someone who wants to make a difference will certainly be appreciated, but it won’t increase their motivation.

The card says Moops

Criticizing the performance review templates themselves is popular sport, but in my experience they are all the same even in their differences.  Besides, their deficiencies serve a valuable purpose:  Finding faults in them is a cathartic opportunity for both manager and managed to relieve their mutual anxiety about the judgment ceremony by eviscerating an inanimate, bureaucratic artifact.

A good review begins with good goals

Useful performance reviews begin with well-constructed goals.  There are many helpful models for writing goals.  I prefer the SMART goals model, which demands that every goal be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound.  I’ve read many well-intentioned goals that were useless to me in assessing someone because they lacked a due-date, or specific success criteria, or were unrealistic.  As a manager, the rigor of goal-writing models keeps you honest and prevents you from assigning goals that, a year later, neither you nor your direct report will be able to declare successful or unsuccessful with any objective certainty.  As a direct report, the same rigor protects you by ensuring that you will be judged on your performance against a clear, realistic, well-defined set of goals.

Eye of the beholder and the free market

When you’re alone in a room with your boss, listening to him or her judge you, it’s easy to overestimate the objective validity of their opinion.  They may be your boss, but they are still just one person and their opinion of you may not be shared by others.  This works both ways:  A boss who thinks you walk on water may overvalue you, just as a boss who thinks you are inadequate may not represent the views of others.  I’ve seen untouchables laid off when they began reporting to another boss who valued them differently and I’ve seen unappreciated individuals rise quickly after a change in leadership.  The point?  If you believe your boss undervalues you, test your hypothesis by applying for other interesting positions.  The market will tell you whether or not you were right.  If, though, you receive similar feedback from multiple bosses, odds are their valuation of you is valid.

Occasionally, performance reviews are awesome

Despite the many problematic aspects of the review process, sometimes they can be a delight.  Most of us thrive on praise and recognition, and when a high performer is being reviewed, it can be a restorative experience for both parties.  As the boss, you have a formal opportunity to praise the person’s accomplishments and explain how you feel their skills contributed to their success so that they gain more self-awareness about how and when to apply particular skills to particular scenarios.  You also get to reset your expectations of them for next year.  On the heels of every promotion I’ve received, I was been given a new charge outside my comfort zone.  “Way to go.  Now, here’s what I need you to do this year.”  As the high performer, you get to feel good about your contributions and reflect on their impact to the organization.  As information professionals, we don’t often give ourselves time to self-reflect, instead rushing from one project to the next.  The formality of the review process forces you to think about the past year and what impact you have made.  Try to enjoy it.  Review season only comes once a year.

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