Performance Reviews Are Not Useful; Feedback Is

I have received some wonderful feedback from some of my managers. Back when I was a young engineer, one of my managers gave me the feedback at an annual review that I didn’t quite finish my projects.

“Oh, you mean on the project I just finished last week?” I wanted to know if it was just that one. I thought I could go back and finish it.

“No, I mean the one 9 months ago, the one 6 months ago, the one 3 months ago, and the one last week,” my boss said.

I became angry. “Okay, I understand why you saved last week’s project for my performance review. That’s okay. Why on earth did you “save” my feedback for the other three projects?? I could have fixed them!”

He shrugged. “I thought I was supposed to wait for the performance review.”

“Don’t wait that long!” I told him. I vowed that when I became a manager, I would never surprise people with feedback.

I now know about finishing projects. As I said, it was great feedback.

I’ve also received feedback about how I needed to let people on a project come to me with bad news. That was really helpful, and I didn’t receive it at a performance review, thank goodness. That would have been way too late. I was able to change my behavior.

When I became a manager, I had to write performance evaluations for my staff. I didn’t like it, but I did it. I thought it was crazy, because, even though we weren’t agile back then, the people worked in cross-functional teams where the people on the teams knew more about what “my” people did than I did. Yes, even though I had one-on-ones. Yes, even though I asked everyone for a list of accomplishments in advance. But, it was the way it was. Even I thought I couldn’t buck city hall.

But now, agile has blown the idea of performance evaluations wide open. And ranking people? Oh my.

I one worked in an organization where a new VP wanted to rank everyone in the Engineering organization, all 80 people. I thought he wasn’t serious, but he was. He wanted to rank everyone from 1 to 80. Us directors had to take an entire day to do this. What was he going to do with the ranking? Cut the bottom 10%. This was serious.

I asked him, “Who’s going to rank us?”

He answered, “I will.”

I asked, “Based on what information?” He’d been there a week.

He replied. “I have my sources.”

Yeah, I bet he did.

The results of that ranking exercise? He managed to take a team of directors who had worked together well before that day, and make us a group of individuals. We were out for ourselves, because this was a zero-sum game.

At the end, no one was happy. Everyone was unhappy with the ranking, with the process, with everything about the day. This was no way to run an organization where people have to work together.

I’ve been a consultant for almost 20 years now. I have not received a formal performance review in that time. I’ve received plenty of feedback. Even when I haven’t enjoyed the feedback, I have liked the fact that I have received it.

And, that is the topic of this month’s management myth, Management Myth 25: Performance Reviews Are Useful.

Remember, I was inside organizations for almost 20 years. I received fewer than 15 performance reviews. Somehow, my bosses never quite got around to them. They hated doing them. I know that one of my bosses wrote them with help of Scotch; he admitted it.

Feedback is useful. Performance reviews? Not so much.

P.S. I know there is a comment on that article already. I am writing a response. The comment deserves more than an off-hand reply.

About Johanna Rothman

I help managers and leaders do reasonable things that work.
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12 Responses to Performance Reviews Are Not Useful; Feedback Is

  1. Jim Grey says:

    I just received a performance review yesterday. Nothing in it was a surprise, as the person I work for has always told me the good and the bad in real time. It was, however, a nice summary of the year — and resulted in an overall rating number, which was used to justify a raise.

    I figure that if reviews have to be done, this is the way to do them.

  2. Jim, Excellent! No surprises. Since you’ve had feedback all along, you’re right, if you have to have performance reviews, this is the way to do them.

  3. Eric Weaver says:

    Performance reviews are an idea left over from the 1940s, probably from WWII. It smacks of “who gets on the promotion list this year”.

    Stacked ranking is downright evil, as you have experienced.

    I know some outfits that go by “number of ‘products’ per week” which while perhaps kinda brutal, at least lets you know where you are good and fast.

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  5. Adrian Wible says:

    Yes, yes. Agree on all counts. Wrote a post over 2 years ago on this http://www.coriandertech.com/2011/06/29/feedback-manifesto/. Would love to collaborate with you sometime. We are very much on the same page in many ways.

  6. Eric, the problem with “number of ‘products’ per week” is that it discriminates against people working together. If I’m a developer and I help you for a half-day iron something out, do I get “credit” for that product? It’s even worse, I bet, if I’m a tester.

    That’s optimization at exactly the wrong level. You want to optimize at the organization level: how many products does the organization release, not does any given developer or tester or writer release?

  7. Hi Adrian, yes, let’s write something when your schedule permits. I happen to have an “in” with the technical editor at agileconnection.com :-) You would be first author, of course.

  8. Great post, Johanna. Unfortunately, managers usually don’t know how to provide valuable feedback. It often takes the parental form of criticism, so the performance review is supposed to provide the necessary information for improvement. Obviously, I’m speaking to the choir, but it would be interesting if in the course of our educational lives we could learn how to give valuable feedback, whether to employees, children or spouses.

  9. Joe Astolfi says:

    Hi Johanna,
    I appreciate this article from you. I completely agree – the traditional way we have done performance reviews is not useful. The person giving the review goes through a lot of time collecting data, making evaluations, then sending them off to their senior leaders to review, approve, or normalize. For the person receiving the review, how much data to they receive that is actionable right now? How much input did they have in their ranking? How much is new information? All of these factors can result in decreased engagement by the person receiving the review, all the while creating a lot of waste. If that is our goal, we are doing well!

    When I have been expected to perform reviews for others, I focus on the person and their career goals. I use the time as a formal career conversation, even though we have had these throughout the year. Maybe 10% of the conversation is a recap of their accomplishments the past year, perhaps more if it was something really substantial.

    In the past when I had direct reports, we had ongoing, regular dialogue about how things are going and how they are doing. I set aside time for them on a regular cadence and do not allow anything to get in the way of that time. Much like an agile retrospective. It is their time, and I owe them my attention an presence. As a people manager, what is more important than the success of your people? How many times has a manager checked their phone or computer during a one on one? Do they allow interruptions? How does that make you feel? I know how I feel – like finding a new manager!

    This writing from you was timely as many organizations are going through or finishing up their yearly performance cycle. Thank you again for an insightful and thought-provoking post, and providing me the opportunity to share my thoughts.

  10. Cathy, how true! This is why Esther and I wrote Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management, so people would know how to provide feedback. (Among other things!)

  11. Joe, thank you for providing a thoughtful reply.

    So many people think that performance reviews are tied into MBOs (Management By Objectives). The problem is this, at least for many knowledge workers: how many of your objectives can really be accomplished by you, alone? So few, if any. Watch for my post next week on that.

    As for the rest of your comment, you are discussing one-on-ones, with your regular dialogues. Yes, a one-on-one is an indispensable tool in the hand of any manager. It’s necessary for a servant leader.

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