As far as I'm concerned, there's one certainty about performance reviews: They are a curse upon our workplaces. They allow bosses to intimidate, rather than manage. They hurt morale and prevent true teamwork. And they ensure that honest communication doesn't have a prayer in the office.
They do enormous damage—to bosses, to their subordinates, and to the companies they work for.
But the good news is that it doesn't have to be this way. There's an alternative that has the potential for achieving all the benefits that performance reviews allegedly achieve, but never will: holding people accountable for their actions and results, giving managers and employees the kind of feedback they need for improving their skills; and giving the company more of what it needs.
The alternative is as simple as it is elegant, straightforward as it is powerful, as obvious as it is revolutionary.
It is the performance preview.
Don't kid yourself: What I'm proposing isn't easy. It will force people to change the way they think, the way they act. But as far as I'm concerned, we have no choice: We have to replace the one-side-accountable, boss-administered/subordinate-received performance review with a two-sided, reciprocally accountable performance preview.
We need a dialogue, not a monologue.
We have to move from the performance review, where bosses tell subordinates what they're doing wrong and how to fix it, to the performance preview where the boss's mission isn't to find fault but to simply improve the company's performance. Imagine if the subordinates didn't spend every day worrying about what weaknesses the boss would hurl at them in the performance review, but instead spent their time wondering how to best reach the company's goals. Imagine if both the subordinate and boss were charged with thinking more broadly about results, so they could adjust their goals along the way if they can convince the big boss that the old criteria no longer make sense.
The performance preview does exactly that. It gets rid of the quest for faults and replaces it with a simple question: What's the best way for the two of us to combine forces in giving the company what we're contracted to give it, as well as take care of our own needs for growth and well—being?
The conversation goes from this:
Boss: You're doing pretty well on your written presentations, but you're turning people off with your aggressiveness at meetings. I also heard you on the phone talking to accounting, and you seemed a little pushy. Some of your colleagues say you can be brusque as well.
Boss: The reports we're giving to corporate are what we have to focus on. That's what they need from us. They've been terrific. We're just not getting to them fast enough. We're not getting cooperation from other departments, and apparently pushing people hard isn't working. So I don't think pushing them harder is the right tactic. I wonder if I can be of help. Perhaps it's time to try sugar?
Immediately, everybody's perspective changes. Get rid of the performance review, get rid of that checklist, get rid of the absurd idea of what the perfect employee should be like, and people are free to keep their eye on the prize—the corporate results—and not the arbitrary path that somebody has prescribed ahead of time.
Taking away the performance review changes the politics of the boss/subordinate relationship from competitive to collaborative. It creates a self—interested need in each of them to monitor how the other is doing and to consider making changes to help each other achieve commonly held goals.
With performance reviews, there is one variable in the discussion: what the boss thinks. Nothing else matters. The boss sits the subordinates down and tells them what they did wrong and what they need to do to improve.
By contrast, with performance previews, the boss and subordinates instead have conversations, and in those conversations there are always four key variables: you including your imperfections; me including mine; our ability to complement and support one another (better known as chemistry); and the context, challenges, and situation being faced.
In reviews, the question is always "How are you doing in pleasing me?" In previews, it's "How are we doing together in getting the company what it needs?"
In reviews, it's "How can you do better?" In previews, it's "How can we do better?"
In reviews, the boss's role is to tell subordinates what they are doing wrong. In previews, the boss's assignment is to guide, coach, tutor, provide oversight, and generally do whatever it takes to assist a subordinate to perform successfully.
Flawed bosses give flawed reviews. Flawed bosses who know their flaws give great previews.
What a difference a letter makes.
Excerpted with permission from Get Rid of the Performance Review! How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing—and Focus on What Really Matters by UCLA professor Samuel A. Culbert with Lawrence Rout (Business Plus; Hachette Book Group).