Good performance reviews happen. Yes, they do. In my own career, they’ve been relatively rare, but I’ve had some good ones. And from those experiences, and talking to a lot of people about how to improve reviews, I’ve learned some ways to do it. I don’t always succeed, but I know what to strive for.
There are variations of the good performance review.
The We’ll-Do-This-By-the-Manual Review. These are the reviews by bosses who will follow the HR guidance document to the absolute letter. They move step-by-step through each goal, each discussion question, and each key performance factor. There’s not much emotion or personality – these are bosses who are good people but a little uptight. But they cover what needs to be covered and there are no surprises.
The Well-Intentioned-And-Not-Ideal-But-Generally-Okay Review: This is the one conducted by bosses who are uncomfortable with the process (and a lot of bosses are uncomfortable with the process) and they know that, so they try to work through it and go a little bit beyond their comfort factor. They don’t surprise you; they move through goals and expectations and tell you your overall rating or appraisal. These are the diligent, decent people who understand the purpose of a review but don’t want to move too deeply into that area of vulnerability – for themselves and the person being reviewed – that truly good reviews require.
And, ah, the best reviews. The best reviews don’t start with a manual or guidelines. They start with a philosophy of people. This shouldn’t be a surprise. How you do a performance review – how anyone does one – is a good indication of one’s general attitude toward people. The context is different, but the model is Jesus and the disciples.
So here’s where I start, or where I try to start, and you won’t find this in the HR manual: #1 I believe in the intrinsic value of each person. And I believe we all have the same intrinsic value, because we are all made in the image of God. That doesn’t mean we’re all the same. We have different skills and level of skills, different degrees of intelligence, different lots of things. But because we’re made in God’s image, in God’s eyes we have the same value.
In practice, this translates into treating each person with the dignity and respect they deserve, trying to find what aspect of works really excites them, and helping them achieve to the fullest extent possible. Someone on my team may be the best writer ever created, but he or she has the same inherent value as anyone else on the team, and I have to help them figure out how to utilize their specific gifts.
From there, you look at what the manuals and guidelines tell you, and you’d be surprised how much of what they contain is biblically based, even thought the people who wrote the stuff probably weren’t aware of that. But there are biblical principles which have indeed permeated our society, and continue to do so. If they ever stop permeating our society and our workplaces, we’re all in major trouble.
#2 Do it all the time. Performance reviews should be an ongoing fact of life in the workplace, and almost on a daily basis. When a problem arises, you deal with it on the spot, and you keep the problem to the individual(s) affected. When something good happens, you celebrate it on the spot, and you celebrate with the whole team. And when performance is appraised and communicated all the time, there are…
#3 No surprises! No one should come into a performance review and be slammed with something they knew nothing about, that no one ever told them about, and comes from so far out of left field that it’s absurd. Surprising people = instant loss of the boss’s credibility. Don’t do it.
#4 Be fair. You may have started out the year with a set of goals and expectations, but a lot of things can change during 12 months. So when they do, when new major projects or responsibilities arrive, you and your employee discuss it at the time it happens and agree that the goals have to change as well.
#5 Be honest. In an ongoing process, honesty and candor are critical. No one can have even a ghost of chance to improve their performance if you never bring up the fact that there’s a problem. I was once thrust into the position of, having become a people leader for the first time, being told that one individual on the team needed to be fired, that performance had lagged for years. When I asked how the individual had responded to this when told (presumably), I learned that nothing had ever been communicated. Ever. For years.
#6 Use the formal reviews for a purpose. The formal review times should be done with a specific purpose in mind, since you’ve been doing the ongoing process all along. If your organization has a mid-year review, use it to calibrate goals set months earlier. Do they still apply? Has something changed? Does something need to drop off or be added? For the annual review, do a wrap-up of the individual’s performance but then spend most of the discussion in planning the next year’s goals for the overall team and the individual. Make use of that knowledge and experience. Solicit ideas and suggestions. Talk about how things that were learned during the year can be applied. Talk about how this fits into the larger organizational picture. And ask for feedback on your performance (and you should have been doing that all along, too).
I’d love to say I practice 100 percent of what I preach here. I don’t. I fall short. Sometimes I really screw up. But the model is what I strive to do. And if you lead people, then you have a special responsibility. I would call it the shepherd’s responsibility: to serve.