Thoughts On Performance Reviews (& Behavior Feedback)

“Don’t mistake activity with achievement.” ― John Wooden

This is a great nugget from a great leader, manager, and coach, primarily because it hits home at all levels of human activity. Not just leadership, but any human behavior or endeavor.

This is why, I think, the criticism on Performance Reviews, which is getting considerable attention 1, 2, 3, 4 in the HR world recently, is taken more or less in isolation, in a bubble in the career world, and misses a broader view of what its place is.

Appetizer

A Performance Review is more like a snapshot, a summary picture in time, taken during the course of supposedly ongoing Behavior Feedback (an interactive video). Each serves an organizational purpose: the Performance Review for formal career, compensation, and promotion purposes; the Behavior Feedback for managing progress toward goals and personal and career development.

In the absence of recognizing that achieving objectives and personal and career development requires ongoing feedback, the Performance Review can slip into the background until upper management decrees a deadline for its completion. And then it can become rather more painful than affirming, like a root canal without anesthetic.  I shared my own experience here.

In this sense, I wholeheartedly agree: the once a year, formal, fill out the paperwork, one-way delivery of ‘This is the way you’re seen because I have to send it upstairs’ Performance Review is dead. If it’s not, it should be euthanized.   However, this is like killing an injured messenger when one doesn’t like the message.

Take a broader perspective for a moment and consider a number of common instances of Behavior Feedback (with or without Performance Reviews), beginning with the most fundamental.

Parenting

Raising children is a full time job. They are growing and changing daily, acquiring new skills and abilities faster than you can detect them (so these often come out in unexpected ‘activities’ (read: behaviors)) which then invite a response that we usually call parenting, the delivery of Behavior Feedback in one or more forms which generally includes guidance, ‘time-outs,’ discipline, or handing them off to the other parent.

There seem to be a number of important human non-negotiable life behaviors here:

  • Each individual child is growing, and changing, daily;
  • The parent(s) generally (should) have a goal or objective in mind in how the mature child should/will turn out and function;
  • The child’s changing skills and abilities manifest themselves first in behaviors, rather than asking permission;
  • If the behaviors are generally consistent with expected norms and objectives, then there is affirmation and encouragement consistent with the child’s personality;
  • If the behaviors deviate from the expected norms and objectives, then there is the need for ‘mid-course correction,’ also known as discipline;
  • At some point the developing skills, abilities, and/or expressions may exceed what the parent is comfortable with or capable of providing or tolerating, and a decision is made to send the child to experts in a more challenging environment and give the parent a break. We call that school;
  • In the end, when parents have poured in as much as they, and others, have and hopefully have plugged most of the leaks, children are released into the world as ‘adults.’ Otherwise, they are released into the world ‘as is.’ In both cases, there is usually baggage.

Bottom line, there is no Performance Review per se, but there is certainly a process of ongoing Behavior Feedback. (By the way, looking at how they turned out is not a Performance Review. A Performance Review, technically, is designed to provide the recipient affirmation, ‘mid-course correction’ and advice, before they ‘turn out.’ Evaluating them after ‘release’ is either looking for your own affirmation, or avoiding the blame.)

Do these human non-negotiable life behaviors manifest themselves in other areas? The idea of Behavioral Continuity would imply that these behavioral patterns in individuals indeed would be manifested in larger and larger groups, albeit with some modifications to fit the circumstances. The following can be found in the optional Appendices (Pages 2 – 5; click to access), if you are so intrigued:

Marriage and Other Relationships
Extended Networks and Relations within Cultures
Civilizations and Inter-Cultural Relations (current events)

Which brings us back to the initial leadership quote from John Wooden, and its relationship to the main topic:

Behavior Feedback and Performance Reviews in Organizations

I will leave as an exercise for the reader to test to see if the concept of Behavioral Continuity will permit our above bullet points to fit with an organization’s management and its developing employees. (If you want to peek, check here)

The larger question is: why does this ‘Performance Review’ process not work as well as advertised in an organization, and take so much flack in recent years 1, 2, 3, 4?

One reason is that the Performance Review has been initiated in an organization and elevated in importance because the organization’s health and viability depends upon the top performance of its member employees. For the other situations mentioned above, it matters not so much.

A second reason is that you can terminate your relationship with an organization (or get fired), but even if you are excommunicated from the other people groups, you can still be considered part of them.

Wooden’s quote cuts two ways for Performance Reviews and Behavior Feedback.

On the one hand, the quote is pointedly directed at the employee: Simply looking busy doesn’t mean you’re actually making progress on goals and responsibilities for the health of the organization. One needs to work smart, efficient, and achieve.

On the other hand, it is also directed at the manager: one of our major management tasks is to help our employees continue to work smart and efficient through ongoing feedback that isn’t just a necessary ‘activity’ but actually achieves something. Something like tuning behaviors, performance, and achievement to changing needs.

Incidentally, in reality these organizational needs seem to change on a very frequent basis, most commonly triggered by one or more of the following:

  • Changes in the overall economy;
  • Competitive changes in the market;
  • Changes in internal or external customer needs;
  • Changes in internal leadership needs (strategy, reorganization, etc.); and possibly
  • Recognition of differences (underperforming or perhaps exceeding) between the employee’s performance and current needs.

(Perhaps it is helpful to remember that an organization (particularly a for profit company, which is legally considered ‘a person’) is a living, growing entity trying to survive in a constantly changing environment. Sounds like a child growing up needing good parenting (leadership)).

Quite often the issue is that this Behavior Feedback was never sufficiently ‘ongoing’ and was relegated to an annual formal exercise called a ‘Performance Review.’ While theoretically a very good concept, in practice this came more to resemble a root canal without anesthetic: neither side appreciated the ordeal they were going through.

What contributed to this? Besides the most probable issues of lack of sufficient training for both sides (what to accomplish, and what to expect) and lack of adequate emphasis from upper management, there is the issue of a manager’s probable discomfort in delivering a performance review, in spite of this training. In other words, baggage.  (Could this also be a contributing factor to the Peter Principle?)

Main Course

Everyone deals with Behavior Feedback, and Everyone has Baggage.

Recall, we all have sleeper values, our hidden and perhaps unrecognized beliefs, and we can consider as personal baggage our need to defend these values.

The Effects of Baggage on Behavior Feedback

The truth is, receiving Behavior Feedback involves some level of conflict, either with the behavior itself or with the person(s) delivering it.

What is new, I suggest, is that we have to consider that the delivery itself, as an instance of potential conflict, is probably difficult for the manager.

In both cases, the baggage is still there, helping determine both the approach and eventual outcome, good or bad.

If we accept the categories of baggage previously posted here, it will be relatively easy to see how they can have a serious effect on how we react to receiving or delivering Behavior Feedback, which is itself tightly linked with both conflict and decision-making. Because of these connections, it would be wise to remember that our baggage also has a considerable effect on creating the exact conditions that require the need for Behavior Feedback and the resulting responses.

In spite of (ample?) training, a manager may slip into a mode of Conflict Management in delivering a Performance Review simply to get through it, leaving both parties less than satisfied. Some characteristics include outright avoidance, ‘Here it is, deal with it,’ little discussion on improvement tactics, and/or the employee being hit with surprises. All of these have a strong correlation with the absence of ongoing Behavior Feedback.

A mode of Conflict Resolution focuses on the main objective of a Performance Review, formally affirming the results of ongoing Behavior Feedback with a goal of continuous development of the employee for the health of the organization.

Bottom Line

One outcome of this exercise is the following:

You can have effective Behavior Feedback without a Performance Review; but you can’t have an effective Performance Review without ongoing Behavior Feedback.

If you have good, ongoing Behavior Feedback (for employee development and organizational health), the employee doesn’t really need a Performance Review. A Performance Review is needed for upper management to apply the most unbiased compensation and promotion plan as possible (for organizational health), which helps make concrete the intangible nature of the Behavior Feedback and Performance Review. One thing that destroys credibility in the organization and upper management is a seemingly arbitrary compensation and promotion policy.

The roots of our baggage in a Performance Review extend back to Decision-Making and Conflict Resolution. A good suggestion would be to begin there to identify and eliminate the baggage.

Notes:

1 Are performance Appraisals Doomed?
2 Performance Reviews: Why Bother?
3 The Gift of Giving Critical Feedback
4 Don’t Let Feedback Crush You

Pages 2 through 5 are the Appendices mentioned above.

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About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 14: Behavior, 15: Baggage, Career and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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