An Annual Performance Review? Just Stab Me in the Eye with a Fork Instead.

Can we talk about that yearly ritual nearly all of us have to go through–one we’d probably be willing to forego our raise to opt out of?

(Oh, noooooo. Do we have to?)

I don’t know about you, but to be brutally honest, I’d rather have a mammogram than sit through another awkward, painful freaking performance review. Possibly even a colonoscopy. (At least you’re blissfully sedated for that.)

You’d think a highly social person with a great sense of humor, who generally gets along with her bosses, like moi, wouldn’t get all bent out of shape by the review process. Especially since most* of the performance reviews I’ve had in my life have been stellar.

Ah, but there’s the rub. It’s because I do value those relationships that I can’t stand reviews. Because there is no other professional interaction—none—that more uncomfortably brings the power dynamic of a supervisor-employee relationship to the forefront.

In the review, the boss holds all the power; the employee is helpless. Sure, there may have been a self-assessment to fill out, but final authority rests in the hands of the leader.

good listener helpingNo matter how healthy and productive the leader-worker relationship and communication are every other day of the work year, the performance review is a minefield. The review is specifically designed to elicit, enumerate, structure, quantify, record, and tie a year’s worth of communication to punishment and reward, in the form of a salary increase—or none at all.

And that, my friends, as we learn in Leader Effectiveness Training, is a recipe for workplace relationship disaster.

Compounding the pain for employees sitting in the review session, ineffective or unskilled leaders tend to make one or more of the following mistakes when they fill out those stacks of performance reviews

1. Recency Bias: Basing an overall annual evaluation score on especially memorable incidents from the past few weeks, or the past couple of months, rather than a full year’s work

2. Halo Effect: If the employee is a rock star at one particular skill (say, for example, closing sales), the boss may rate him or her artificially high on everything else as well, including “works well with others” even though the rest of the team takes the stairs to avoid being trapped in an elevator with him.

3. Horn Effect: On the flipside, some employees may have one trait that just rubs the boss the wrong way. Maybe it’s a nine-inch long beard or a penchant for garlic, or maybe it’s the fact that she just isn’t a morning person and gets in at 9:30 a.m., which is acceptable according to company policy, but drives the 7:30 a.m. leader personally mad. And down, down, down, go all the employee’s other rankings, accordingly, because he or she “just isn’t professional…

4. Central Tendency: Especially in a large organization that’s trying to hold raises to a minimum in a tough year, supervisors may be under pressure to keep reviews within a particular range. As a result, everybody is ranked as average. This kind of feedback is not only unhelpful; it’s demoralizing

5. Excessive Leniency or Stiffness. Just like teachers, some bosses are easy graders and some are tough. But that doesn’t make getting feedback from them particularly useful or good for morale. If everybody gets magnificent reviews, the system didn’t really work; if everybody gets “just barely passing muster; you’re lucky to have a job,” that’s not going to be constructive in the long-term, either.

6. Personal Bias: Finally, and yes, it happens: Managers do have biases, stereotypes, and subconscious preferences. Maybe they believe people with facial piercings are less diligent about their work than those who opted not to get lip studs. Maybe they’re more positively disposed toward men who wear suits than those who come to the office in jeans and plaid shirts. Studies through the years have shown over and over again that those prejudices and biases can and do show up in performance scores.

In Leader Effectiveness Training, Dr. Thomas Gordon outlines some of ways people naturally react to power:

  • Reduction in upward communication
  • Buttering up and other ingratiating reactions
  • Destructive competitiveness and rivalries
  • Submission and conformity
  • Rebellion and defiance
  • Forming alliances and coalitions
  • Withdrawing and escaping

I can personally attest that in the weeks leading up to a formal performance review, I’ve been guilty of at least a few of those behaviors.

And no wonder. As the dreaded review day approaches, the great relationship I usually have with my boss is placed, for a month or so, under artificial stress by the company we both work for.

Instead of working together, honestly and openly and collaboratively, with the company’s best interests at the center of our efforts, we’re suddenly placed at odds with each other—especially if the boss is being pressured to try to hold down the “expense” of annual raises by trying to find ways to tell me that while I’m good, I’m not really all that great.

It turns out I’m not alone in hating this agonizing, trust-shredding ritual. As far back as 2010, the Wall Street Journal was already admitting it: yep, everybody hates performance reviews.

Millennials, especially, despise them because—wait for it—they’re so infrequent, opaque, and leave them feeling blindsided and one-way. In fact, more than half of millennials report they’ve left a performance review crying, cursing, or looking for a new job.

Thankfully, there is also some emerging good news about this workplace relationship-wreck: in the past year, several huge organizations including Adobe, GE, Accenture, Netflix, and Microsoft have ditched the formal performance review.

The trend in these s moving toward more frequent, two-way, future-looking, goal-oriented, constructive and meaningful feedback.

Like what?

Well, it turns out Dr. Thomas Gordon had that figured out all the way back in 1977, when Leader Effectiveness Training was first published. He called it the Periodic Planning Conference:

“…a specified time set aside for the leader and the group member to lay out a plan of what the member intends to do during the next six months to improve performance, to develop new skills, and to institute changes in carrying out functions of the job…Rather than focus on past performance (what already has been done), the PPC requires the leader and the group members to focus on future performance (what can be done). Thereby, the PPC to a great extent eliminates the distasteful feature of most merit-rating systems—namely, the leader’s having to evaluate, judge, and rate group members’ past performance.” (Leader Effectiveness Training, 260-261)

Let’s hope this is a trend that takes off.

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