Performance reviews / evaluations are mostly a train wreck that everyone hates. So what do we do?

Here’s some new research on ‘performance appraisal satisfaction,’ or, phrased in more layman’s terms, “how people feel about the idea of performance reviews.” To avoid traipsing in the deep end of academia, let’s turn to The Washington Post to let us know what the study found:

They guessed that people who are motivated by a real desire to learn would respond well to getting critical feedback in a performance review, using it to improve how they work without much in the way of complaint.

They were wrong.

Those who like to learn—presumably some of the best employees—were significantly bothered by the negative feedback they received. The research is a reminder not only of how much people dislike criticism, but of how dangerous performance review tools like rankings and ratings can be.

This is a big topic, and a current topic, because many companies do performance reviews around this time of year. The basic idea makes a ton of sense — it’s the same thing as tracking kids as early as Pre-K. Basically you want to put people on some type of continuum in terms of performance, so that they can be evaluated, bonus decisions can be made, promotion decisions can be made, etc. That all makes sense. The problem is that, over time, the systems and processes for tracking have become complicated (to execute) and confusing (to justify). As a result, people don’t really know where they stand, and when they get passed over for an opportunity or something of the like, it can have adverse effects.

Here’s a quick story. Last summer I sat in on a few mid-term reviews, which is kind of like “The actual review is in six months, so let’s see what is happening now.” A good tool, right? Wrong. We went to these top managers and, on average, they had about 20 people to evaluate. They’d do two — usually their favorite two, or the obvious best two — and then for the other 18, they’d literally say (literally), “Give em all 3s, tell em they’re looking fine for year-end.” Basically 90 percent of the exercise was thrown to the wind. Essentially, it was a joke.

You could also call it corporate kabuki:

Not exactly a state of mind anyone wants to have. But we don’t need neuroscience to tell us why the annual performance review song-and-dance is so universally reviled. We have our own reasons: the endless paperwork, the evaluation criteria so utterly unrelated to our jobs, and the simplistic and quota-driven ratings used to label the performance of otherwise complex, educated human beings.

This is a big one too. Oftentimes, a job is defined as one thing, and then the priorities of a company or division shift, and your job ends up as something else — or someone quits, or someone else is promoted, or whatever the eff happens, but suddenly you’re covering two jobs, or started in marketing and are now doing finance, or started in client services and are now doing organizational development, or … literally a million things can shift. I talked to my friend the other night and suddenly he’s leading the charge of a new financial tracking system for his company; that was never in his job description. How much do you want to bet that his next performance review won’t reflect that new responsibility? It’s basically a static document for a dynamic climate. That’s bad.

So, what do we do?

The first thing is pretty simple, although can be harder at smaller companies with tighter budgets: basically, try to train more. Offer more opportunities for growth and ‘stretch assignments’ outside of the core position and then record and note who’s taking advantage of those. The main difference between companies that people love and companies that people are indifferent about is investment back into people, be it training or availability to pursue other projects.

The second thing is harder, but necessary: you need an actual, legitimate process. Namely, who owns it? HR or direct managers? Then, probably most importantly, how can we make it so that it consumes the least time possible? (The absolute easiest way to get people to half-ass something in corporate America is to present it as something that “is essential to be done” on top of existing responsibilities. People will always treat that designation as bullshit.) So you need, essentially: a short, relatively easy-to-complete process with a clear owner, and then you need designated feedback opportunities. So like, if we say you’re good at this and bad at this, when are we going to follow up and see how you’re doing at the thing you were bad at? Short, sweet, owned, focused, fed back. Those are the big pieces.

One of the big things here — and it’s the same problem with the adoption of Big Data, to an extent — is that when a lot of stuff is swirling around you (be it data or the need to complete 20 forms on your employees), people tend to default to their gut as opposed to actual observable things. “I don’t need big data, I know my sales team!” or “I don’t need to think about Wendy’s performance, I know she’s a little above-average!” That happens. People love to put things in boxes, be it their personal life or their professional (I don’t mean literal boxes, I mean grouping people according to basic info you know about them). The same thing happens with performance reviews. You could be a superstar on two projects but your boss might only remember the three times you came in late, because that’s how he/she categorizes info. If so, you’re screwed.

Quick other story. I haven’t actually had a performance review in about six years. I’ve switched jobs twice or so in that span, and gone back to school too, but in those six years, there were three opportunities to have one; never did. Managers just didn’t really care, or “were too busy.” I figured this was kind of abnormal, but I met a lady this summer who’s worked for a Fortune 15 company for 11 years — and hasn’t had one in seven years. “No real time,” she told me. “Gotta focus on the actual work.” That’s a pretty American attitude, I think.

Finally, I don’t think reviews should mean anything unless the format is standardized and easy and has buy-in and has consequences/feedback. Otherwise, just eliminate the system — although then the issue is promotion based on politics alone, or relevance of projects, and that’s all subjective. “Rank and yank” makes no sense if your system is flawed and rushed; that’s basically like the equivalent of corporations advancing people on the same decision-making processes that guys at the bar at last call use. I can’t see that working for anyone, really.

Ted Bauer