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Get Less Pain, More Gain from Performance Reviews

Managers and employees alike dread annual review time. But there's a better way: replacing or supplementing a performance review with lighter, more useful conversations.

By Allison Torres Burtka

The traditional annual performance review process is fraught with anxiety—so much so that some organizations are doing away with it entirely and replacing it with more frequent informal check-ins.

"People stake so much on the annual performance review," says Pegotty Cooper, FASAE, a certified coach at Career Strategy Roadmap. "The old performance evaluation system—of having forced rankings and having it done annually and always tied to money—is just not serving anybody well."

In recent years, many large companies—including Intuit, Cigna, and the Gap—have kicked traditional reviews to the curb. "There are so many things that point to the value of more frequent conversations about performance that I would say that trend is going to continue," Cooper says.

Many associations might not be ready to get rid of performance reviews completely—because of annual budgeting needs or other reasons. But even if managers still have to complete some version of the typical review, they can supplement it with more frequent conversations about performance, and they can reframe those conversations so that they are more productive for the employee and the employer. These check-ins, or "performance snapshots," take the pressure off the annual review and make sure it's not the only time the employee gets feedback.

Check-ins assess performance in the recent past, so the feedback is closer to real time, and they look at where the person is headed.

Organizations often strive to be agile and flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances, and some say that approach should extend to performance reviews. Check-ins can help a manager assess an employee's performance in the context of the association's internal and external dynamics, as well as the employee's own professional development plans—because people change as they move through their career, Cooper notes.

Taking a Performance Snapshot

A performance snapshot should not simply be a smaller version of the same thing. These more frequent conversations can look more closely at the employee's current and future strengths, development, and value to the organization. "People want to be valued, and they want to continue to develop," Cooper says.

A typical review looks back over the past year; check-ins look forward. They assess performance in the recent past, so the feedback is closer to real time, and they look at where the person is headed.

Cooper says these conversations should involve asking the employee: "How are you going to do your best work? What is your best work this week or this month? And how can we help you accomplish that and leverage your strengths to do that? What do you need? Are you running into obstacles?"

Looking at barriers to good performance helps both the manager and the employee assess options for eliminating them. Also, "if their best work doesn't really align with what the organization needs, then that's an opportunity for conversation as well," Cooper says.

A Project Context

Cooper recommends timing these snapshots to projects rather than the calendar. "Associations are made up, basically, of projects—whether it's the annual meeting, membership renewals, campaigns, or meetings on the Hill," she says.

Many of these projects involve cross-functional engagement in the organization. But annual reviews often don't assess that kind of work adequately, and employees "resent it if [the evaluation] doesn't reflect that they were 'all hands on deck' for the annual meeting," Cooper says. An association's projects are a good opportunity to assess employees based on how they contributed.

A project debrief can include a performance snapshot for every person involved. Managers can ask employees: "If you weren't able to do your best work in this project, what was it that got in your way?" Then they can talk about whether the person needed more training or didn't see why it was relevant to their job, for example.

Easing the Tension

Annual performance reviews make most people anxious. "We've got two uncomfortable people trying to have this conversation that's going to affect this person's performance for the next year," Cooper says.

Training or coaching managers on how to have these conversations can be helpful, Cooper says, pointing to Judith Glaser's concept of conversational intelligence. "As managers, we have to be able to be relevant moving forward—and to encourage our employees to do the same," she says.

The traditional performance review's failure is "an organizational malfunction," Cooper says. Making it only one part of a larger effort to assess performance can help both manager and employee get a better outcome.

Allison Torres Burtka, a longtime association journalist, is a freelance writer and editor in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Email: [email protected]

Performance Management