Op-Ed
Op-Ed

Performance reviews are corporate America's curse on itself

Employee performance reviews are a curse on corporate America

Ask most managers and employees about the corporate performance review, and the answer probably is the same: It's a pain to give, a pain to get, but a necessary part modern corporate life. It's something we just have to do.

Says who? Who says you have to take part in a corporate ritual that is as destructive as it is ubiquitous? Who says you have to do something that damages the relationship between bosses and their subordinates, that practically forces employees to be dishonest to their managers, that keeps workers from doing the best they can do, and in the end hurts the bottom line?

I like to ask defenders of the performance review two sets of simple questions:

Do you think performance reviews are objective? If so, why do you think surveys show that most employees get completely different reviews if they are rated by a second boss?

Do you believe reviews help teamwork by getting people to work together to raise the department's performance? When they invariably say yes, I ask: If you knew that only three people in your department could get a top ranking (since most companies limit the number of top grades managers can give out), would you be more or less inclined to help your colleagues succeed?

I see performance reviews as a curse on corporate America. They claim to be objective, but one person's view of another can be no more objective than a film critic's review of a movie. At the same time, they inhibit workers from speaking truth to power, for fear that their truth will come back in a review to haunt them in being labeled difficult.

Reviews impede personal growth, because what employee wants to admit weakness when that admission can be used against him or her at annual review time? They assume that everybody should be measured against the same yardsticks, when everybody is different and employees' path to success is based on their own strengths and weaknesses.

Corporations also often cite the reviews as a necessary paper trail in case an employee is fired later. But the inherent subjectivity and dishonesty of reviews more often than not serves the employee's case in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit rather than the corporate defendants'.

The problem, defenders often say, is not in the review but in the way it's done. If only. A cake made with bad flour is no more tasty than the crumb of bread made with the same flour.

To be clear, I do want accountability, and I believe in the boss ultimately getting to make the final decision. But I don't believe, as the performance review would have us believe, that only one person is accountable: the employee. The boss is accountable as well, since it's the boss' job to make sure employees succeed. If the employee isn't producing results, the boss should have known enough not to give that person the assignment or done a better job helping that employee succeed.

So how do you turn things around? How do you get good management? For starters, get rid of the performance review with its boss-dominated, intimidating relationship, and its focus on what hasn't worked in the past. Instead, start the process of what I call performance previewing, which allows you to work on resource and communication problems while there's still time to get good results.

Previews are problem-solving, setting their sights on the future and what needs to happen, not on the past and who's to blame. And they don't happen only annually; they take place whenever either the boss or the subordinate believe something isn't working well.

You also change the internal politics so that boss and subordinate are an accountability team, both on the hook for producing corporate results. This gives bosses reason to create the circumstances for employees to say what they really think and what's gone awry, rather than forcing them to focus on why the employees haven't gotten the results. Give them reason to play to employee strengths and not to blindly count what employees can't do.

Finally, bosses and employees need to start having real conversations, where everybody owns what they think and there is no “truth” handed down from above. Only then can all workers feel free to say what they think without fear of being punished by their words down the road. Only then can you have true teamwork and collaboration.

When I asked the 62 MBA students in my leadership class — students who have full-time professional jobs — to describe a personal experience with good or bad management, 57 of them offered the latter. It's because they are tired of a system in which bosses manage with a whip. And that whip is the performance review.

I don't pretend that taking that whip out of managers' hands is easy. I have no doubt that managers and their employees would find it all bewildering at first. But I can tell you where they should start: get rid of the performance review.

Samuel A. Culbert, a professor in the Anderson School of Management at UCLA, is coauthor, with Lawrence Rout, of "Get Rid of the Performance Review! How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing — and Focus on What Really Matters."

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