No­body likes a job re­view

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY JENA MCGRE­GOR McGre­gor writes Post-Lead­er­ship, about lead­ing in a chang­ing world.

Man­agers of­ten hate them as much as em­ploy­ees — and some com­pa­nies are drop­ping this an­nual rite.

Among the hun­dreds of rea­sons to hate per­for­mance re­views, here’s an­other: They dull cer­tain parts of our brains. Tem­po­rar­ily, at least.

Re­search shows that when a per­son’s sta­tus is threat­ened — some­thing that of­ten hap­pens when we’re told in a per­for­mance re­view how we need to im­prove — ac­tiv­ity di­min­ishes in cer­tain re­gions of the brain. When that oc­curs, says David Rock, the au­thor of “Your Brain at Work,” “peo­ple’s fields of view ac­tu­ally con­strict, they can take in a nar­rower stream of data, and there’s a re­stric­tion in cre­ativ­ity.”

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 peo­ple.

What makes this an­nual rite of cor­po­rate kabuki so baf­fling is that those of us get­ting and giv­ing re­views aren’t the only ones who hate them. Cor­po­rate lead­ers ap­par­ently aren’t big fans, ei­ther. In sur­veys of man­agers and hu­man re­source pro­fes­sion­als, lead­er­ship ad­vi­sory firm CEB found that per­for­mance re­views, well, get pretty bad re­views them­selves.

They’re wildly in­ac­cu­rate, for one: CEB’s re­search finds that twothirds of em­ploy­ees who re­ceive the high­est scores in a typ­i­cal per­for­mance man­age­ment sys­tem are not ac­tu­ally the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s high­est per­form­ers. Go fig­ure. The re­views are in­ef­fec­tive, too: Man­agers told CEB that con­ven­tional re­views gen­er­ate only a 3 to 5 per­cent im­prove­ment in per­for­mance.

Our col­lec­tive dis­taste of the process wors­ened as the econ­omy has stag­nated, work­place dy­nam­ics have changed and a new gen­er­a­tion of work­ers has emerged with dif­fer­ent ex­pec­ta­tions. Man­agers are su­per­vis­ing more peo­ple and spend­ing less time in­ter­act­ing with each. Mak­ing mat­ters worse, raises are so pal­try that the dif­fer­ence be­tween get­ting a “4” or a “5” on your re­view might mean lit­tle more than tak­ing the kids out for pizza ev­ery cou­ple of weeks.

Mean­while, in work­places that have moved from com­mand-and­con­trol hi­er­ar­chies to ones that value team­work and ma­trix-style man­age­ment, per­for­mance edicts from on high are a ter­ri­ble fit. “They’re de­signed as though they’re Rus­sia in the ’60s,” man­age­ment ad­viser Mar­cus Buck­ing­ham says.

That’s es­pe­cially the case for work­ers of a younger gen­er­a­tion, who have come to ex­pect im­me­di­ate feed­back in nearly ev­ery other as­pect of their lives. “They put some­thing on Instagram, and in 15 to 20 sec­onds they’re ex­pect­ing to know if it’s any good or not,” he says. “So it’s crazy for them to come into a work­place that’s like, ‘We don’t care about you, and twice a year we’re go­ing to tell you what the com­pany wants.’ ”

So why then, pray tell, do we still do per­for­mance re­views?

One an­swer: We al­ways have. An “im­pe­rial rater” was ap­par­ently used as far back as the Wei Dy­nasty in third-cen­tury China to make per­for­mance eval­u­a­tions of peo­ple at the im­pe­rial court. The Navy used per­for­mance rat­ings dur­ing the Civil War, says Kevin Murphy, a con­sul­tant. “Th­ese are large-scale, com­plex sys­tems for mak­ing peo­ple un­happy,” he says. “They’re not a new prob­lem.”

An­other rea­son is the no­tion that com­pany lawyers re­quire them. The pa­per trail many com­pa­nies rely on to sup­port per­son­nel de­ci­sions fre­quently hap­pens not as part of the reg­u­lar re­view process but af­ter a com­pany has de­cided to man­age some­one out. “I have had count­less sit­u­a­tions that go like this: I get a phone call from a client say­ing an em­ployee’s work is in­tol­er­a­ble, and they need to take im­me­di­ate ac­tion. But then I get the eval­u­a­tion file and it says ‘meets ex­pec­ta­tions,’ ” says Garry Mathi­a­son, chair­man of the global em­ploy­ment law firm Littler Men­del­son.

CEB found that a small but grow­ing 3 per­cent of com­pa­nies in 2012 had dropped tra­di­tional an­nual per­for­mance re­views. Stud­ies have shown over and over again that “peo­ple sim­ply think they per­form bet­ter than other peo­ple,” says Mary Jenk­ins, an HR con­sul­tant who co-wrote the book “Abol­ish­ing Per­for­mance Ap­praisals.” “Un­less you rate some­one in the high­est cat­e­gory, the con­ver­sa­tion shifts away from feed­back and devel­op­ment to jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.”

That’s why, two years ago, Medtronic “ditched the old style of per­for­mance man­age­ment,” in the blunt words of Caro­line Stock­dale, a former chief tal­ent of­fi­cer for the $16.2 bil­lion med­i­cal tech­nol­ogy com­pany. Out went the rat­ings that as­signed em­ploy­ees a num­ber be­tween one and five, the forced bell curves that man­dated how many “3s” and “4s” a man­ager could hand out, and the an­nual moun­tain of pa­per­work.

She in­sti­tuted a quar­terly “per­for­mance ac­cel­er­a­tion” process that fo­cuses on a hand­ful of goals, has no num­bers or rat­ings and in­cludes a one-page sum­mary. So far, fears that the changes would lead to man­agers not mak­ing tough calls about ter­mi­nat­ing peo­ple have gone un­founded.

“The typ­i­cal per­for­mance re­view sys­tem doesn’t work be­cause you’re de­mo­ti­vat­ing half your pop­u­la­tion, pok­ing them in the eye with a sharp stick,” she says. And, ap­par­ently, dulling sec­tions of their brains for a while, too.

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