Hacking the performance review

There’s this thing happening in the near future, a collaboration with the CIPD and Gary Hamel. They’re calling it a #hackathon. How very interesting.

It’s a project to crack workplace practise, make it meaningful and add actual value.

This week we’ve seen the likes of Perry Timms and Rob Jones get involved in the conversation and give some thoughts on poor performers at work and the unnecessary level of process we are sometimes guilty of putting into place. Both good places to start a conversation and get those grey cells working.

The other day on Twitter I asked what term we could replace the term performance review with. And so, dear readers, I ask you to be involved in this discussion. Let’s remind ourselves of the purpose of the performance review, and the options available.

Performance reviews in most organisation are that formal point of the year when you sit down and have your appraisal with your line manager. There are a lot of people writing about how to perform a good annual review. Even I did once… or twice… or three times…

That’s not the point though. The point is we need to move on. We need to move on from this concept of appraising performance and move towards a concept of appreciation and progression. And here comes the obligatory challenge – what about the retrospective element of reviewing work? Hold. That. Thought. Compadre.

Here’s where I lay out the ideal. Performance reviews need to be one of the first things that get hacked. Into little itty bitty pieces that can be scattered in the wind. It has served its purpose as a way of managing your people. For most people it’s looked on with disdain, and that same majority would much rather it just didn’t happen.

But what to replace it with? Well, there are two main contenders for replacing the traditional manager-employee review. In both instances, the onus is on the individual. That is, if the individual wants to receive feedback on work achieved, it is up to them to do the necessary leg work and provide the evidence. To whom?

Well first option is to have a panel of reviewers. The individual presents their evidence for a job well done over a given period of time, and they are interviewed/interrogated/examined about their work. Based on this, the panel decides on the performance of the individual, provides feedback, and makes recommendation for future work. These reviewers would likely be other managers. What I like about this is it gives the opportunity for other managers to learn about work happening across the organisation and gain better understanding of workplace pressures, challenges and successes. It also presents a real challenge of committing to the process in a regular and consistent fashion in order that fairness of the panel is maintained.

The second option is to have peer reviews. The individual again presents their evidence for a job well done, but in this case to a panel who consist of your peers. That is, no one is in a management role reviewing your work. The feedback you receive is based on the understanding of the work you present, and your work is shared across the organisation. This allows a level of transparency and openness about work practices which may not have been evident before, and the feedback is likely to be objective. The main challenge to this is trusting the word of your colleagues, and being able to identify what development or progression you could benefit from.

There is also a big assumption with both of these models that the pay system is not linked to the performance review process. This shouldn’t happen anyway. It’s a poor excuse for managing staff by coupling it with a pay review and expecting people to clap like sealions when you wave a bit of money in front of them. Such a degrading way of treating people, and yet most organisations are absolutely wedded to the process.

Instead this should be laid out up front in the employment contract. Your base salary is this. Increase in salary is based on specific criteria – most important of these being organisational success. No organisational success = no pay increase. Bonuses are paid under exact circumstances. Submission for pay increase needs to be under these principles. There are very good ways of making all of this happen. It just doesn’t need to be nor should it be linked to the performance review process.

So what about the retrospective element of appraisals? Well, as I’ve mentioned in the posts above, and as I tell every line manager I work with, that retrospective element should be happening regularly and consistently throughout the year. The annual review is then a summary of previous conversations, where the only thing to actually talk about is what’s happening in the future? We’ve summarised everything we’ve been talking about regularly over the previous review period, and we both understand if it’s been a successful, non-descript or poor year. So now let’s focus on the coming review period and what needs to happen tomorrow.

Again, I’ve said this before, but if your annual review is the only time to actually review your person’s performance, then a) you shouldn’t be a manager b) see a) c) your organisation doesn’t believe in the process for it to be effective d) you need better development in this area e) all of the above, especially a).

This also then questions the very relevance of being a manager. If part of what a manager is responsible for is the development and progression of staff, and I’m suggesting this is removed from them and shared with others in different ways, what are they left with? Well, people still need to have a line manager for a host of operational and development based needs. The role of the manager isn’t to hold the hands of every person they’re responsible for, it’s to give support and develop staff based on organisational needs.

So, I’m intrigued by this hackathon, and what it could unleash. It needs people to get behind it, and I’m sure there will be.

And bearing in mind everything I’ve just mentioned and talked about above, what would you call the performance review?

Best. Appraisal. Ever.

Odd title for a post eh? And not one you’d think would be that awfully exciting either. I’m certainly not promising to make it exciting, but hopefully interesting. It’s one of the biggest bugbears of all involved in HR/L&D. And let’s put aside the debate for now of the future of appraisals and if there are better ways to conduct them. As it is, we’re stuck with them in the main. The biggest issue we’ve always had is how to make them less unnecessarily time intensive.

The best end of year review I ever had lasted 45 mins.

I’ll come back to that a bit later.

So far I’ve been lucky to work in organisations where there aren’t really that many barriers to making appraisals a useful part of a person’s development. I’ve experienced everything from annual reviews to quarterly reviews, and known there to be 4 hour reviews and one’s as short as mine above. Some can turn quite heated and emotional, others can be non-descript, and some can be seen as a waste of time. And through all that, there’s only really one thing I consider – that the line manager has not taken the time on a regular basis to give regular informal (and sometimes formal) feedback to their direct report which helps them to continually develop.

It’s the hardest thing for a manager to do, but an absolutely vital part of their work. Direct reports need to know if they’re doing a good job, and the main person they’re going to hear that from is the line manager.

One of things I’ve not really considered is that there are going to be organisations where taking the time to do this regularly and consistently with all your people is just practically difficult. The demands of the day job for organisations such as the NHS, police service and fire service are such that the people development side of work just gets pushed to the bottom of the pile. Yes, people can and do attend the appropriate training courses to help give them the skills to review their people, but what it fails to take into account is the practicality of doing so. And in truth, this training is woefully lacking – not the delivery, but the breadth of the content.

So here’s something to throw in the mix. We’re not giving enough attention or efforts to actually equipping line managers to do reviews amazingly well.

How about instead of sending line managers on simple appraisal training, we made the learning and development they go through so robust, line managers would not only feel more confident about holding regular reviews, but they would fundamentally change their perception of what people development is all about.

Here’s what I’m thinking. As L&Ders, we know plenty of ways to enable managers and leaders to be great, but – AND THIS IS A BIG BUT – we hold this for the reserve of those on leadership and management programmes. We don’t, in principle, tend to think of appraisal training – or performance management training, as being anything other than mandatory training for line managers. And as such, we keep it simple, and basic.

All it needs is to re-think the skills we provide managers in respect to this. How about if they learned what Situational Leadership could do for them. That they don’t need to take large chunks out of their day, but deal with things as they arise. That they could follow up with informal notes and emails that check in with progress. That they could mentally chart the development of each person based on day to day interactions instead of an annual meeting and feedback which is third party information.

How about if we taught them how to give feedback which is meaningful and direct. I’ve long let go of the concept of the ‘praise sandwich’. We’re adults for crying out loud. If we’re doing something right or wrong, and there is evidence to support it, give it to us straight down the line. How we deal with that feedback is up to us, but there’s nothing better than knowing where you stand.

How about if we taught what Diversity truly means amongst team members and encouraged not just toleration of others’ differences but downright praise and proper conversation about things that matter to team members. Much, and many, complaints and grievances in the workplace come down to a lack of understanding of someone else’s perspective, because we’ve not encouraged the permission to have those discussions without causing offence. I only know a handful of people who can have this conversation well, and I love those people.

How about if we took the time to actually provide training on business development and commercial acumen skills to all line managers, instead of competency frameworks and balanced scorecards? Then we’re helping to give everyone the knowledge and skills to move the business forward. Line managers can and should be enabling that in their direct reports, now leaving it up to the Execs – who are only just acting according to what they think is right anyway.

How about if we taught line managers how to spot positive behaviours so that they could actively encourage those amongst individuals and team members. Praise is infectious, both receiving it and giving it. If you hear someone in your team has done a good job, you’ll start to act in ways which bring about the same response. If you spot a team member doing something encouraging and positive, you’re likely to spot others in the team doing the same.

I’m sure there are better ways of giving line managers the confidence and skills to be able to make appraisals meaningful when they need to happen.

The best end of year review I ever had lasted 45 mins. This is because there were no surprises in what we talked about, we agreed on all the important points, and had nothing contentious to be challenged.