Let’s face it, as a manager, giving annual performance reviews may be one of the hardest tasks you perform all year—from the highly formulaic write-ups to the tension in the face-to-face meetings to the difficulty of conveying the need to do better without causing the person who hears it to lose motivation.
If you hate the process, you’re not alone. Rose Mueller-Hanson of the insight and technology company CEB/Gartner told the Society for Human Resource Management that CEB’s research showed that managers spend an average of 210 hours a year on performance reviews, even though 77 percent of HR professionals “believe performance reviews don’t accurately reflect employee contributions.”
Annual reviews are still the norm, but several major companies including Deloitte, Medtronic, General Electric, Accenture, Microsoft, and Adobe have begun abandoning them.
Here’s the rub—your employees probably dislike annual reviews, too, but they’re also hungry for managerial feedback. Feedback drives staff engagement with their job, and fully 65 percent of employees crave more contact with their manager, according to a survey by OfficeVibe, an employee engagement software provider.
This is even more the case among younger workers, who’ve grown up with the kind of immediate feedback provided by the internet. Millennials have grown up in a sea of frequent, informal, casual messages from multiple sources, and they expect the same thing at work. A survey for PriceWaterhouseCooper found that “51% of [millennials] questioned said feedback should be given very frequently or continually on the job and only 1% said feedback was not important to them.”
To find out more about emerging innovations in performance reviews for workers of all ages, we spoke to Taneen Jafarkhani, the VP of People for Philosophie Group, a digital innovation firm with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.
Extensive research on the subject, as well as Jafarkhani’s own experience, reveal a number of principles that are helpful, whether you’re a CEO who’s in a position to change your office’s system of giving feedback, or a manager hoping to make the best of an annual review system that few people like. And some of these suggestions may surprise you.
1. Feedback needs to be ongoing and specific.
Strong, silent leaders in the John Wayne mode were popular in the 1950s, but they don’t succeed today. Whether you use an annual review meeting or not, you shouldn’t wait until their hiring anniversary to let employees know how they’re doing.
They need to receive that information throughout the year to improve their performance, even if they’re not millennials. Uncertainty breeds fear and defensiveness, which helps no one. Jafarkhani minces no words on this point. “Waiting until a performance review to provide critical feedback is irresponsible and even cowardly on the part of management. It’s also unfair to the employee who is in the dark—people deserve a chance to improve. Finally, it’s unfair to the team at large [that] relies on management to give feedback. Communication is the foundation of a good employer/employee relationship.”
More frequent meetings don’t necessarily need to be scheduled, sit-down, half-hour affairs. Pull someone aside after a meeting or casually drop by their cubicle.
Frequent, less formal feedback reduces pressure and defensiveness, and lets you focus on smaller, more specific bits of praise or suggestions for improvement. “I liked the way you shared the recognition for that successful project in our staff meeting Tuesday” might be a subtle way to encourage a rarely seen positive trait in a staffer, but it won’t be as effective if you deliver it five months after the fact.
2. Don’t be overly positive.
We know it’s uncomfortable to deliver criticism to employees, and surveys of managers confirm this. But a surprising finding of the research on this topic is that employees actually prefer receiving constructive criticism to praise. A study in the Harvard Business Review by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman found that 57 percent of people surveyed preferred negative (or “corrective”) feedback from their boss, while only 43 percent wanted praise/recognition.
The reason is simple: they know it will help their career. “Fully 72 percent said they thought their performance would improve if their managers would provide corrective feedback, according to the study.” But how the feedback was delivered really mattered—92 percent of the respondents agreed with the assertion “Negative (redirecting) feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.”
Zenger and Folkman define effective corrective feedback as “suggestions for improvement, explorations of new and better ways to do things, or pointing out something that was done in a less than optimal way,” as opposed to positive feedback, which means “praise, reinforcement, and congratulatory comments.”
3. Be direct.
It’s natural to dread a confrontation with an underperforming employee, but if you soft-pedal your message, they may not hear it at all. Jafarkhani shared a story about an art director whose low morale—stemming from “understandable reasons”—was hindering his team’s performance. Several one-on-one talks with his manager hadn’t helped. But when Jafarkhani spoke very directly with him, he “... thanked me for [it] and swore that he hadn’t received this feedback before. The manager (who was in the room) was shocked to realize that his attempts to give feedback weren’t heard. Here’s the thing: people have a hard time registering bad news, so if it’s watered-down or sugarcoated, the point won’t get across. If tough news is received ‘too well,’ it might be a sign that the tough news wasn’t actually received.”
4. Nothing in a performance review should be a surprise.
Part of the dread surrounding performance reviews is the fear of receiving bad news, but there shouldn’t be any new news delivered at all. Annual reviews become problematic when managers use them in place of the ongoing communication that they should be delivering all year. Jafarkhani explains the proper role of reviews this way: “A performance review is helpful for reflecting upon and documenting what the manager and employee already know about the employee’s performance over the past months; discussing how the relationship between the employee and company is going; and talking about the employee’s bigger goals and what the company can do to help the employee achieve them.”
5. Look forward more than backward.
The question “Where do you see yourself in five years?” shouldn’t be limited to job interviews. A good manager should be more like a career coach helping you maximize your career than a high school teacher passing judgment on your past work.
Constructive criticism is much more welcome when it sounds like “Here’s what you need to do to get that manager position you’re aiming for.”
There are a lot of reasons companies cling to annual performance reviews when almost no one likes them: inertia, tradition, and the perception that they provide a defense against lawsuits over firings and denied promotions, or a metric for annual pay increases. But maintaining a relationship based on frequent, constructive, and forward-looking feedback will make you a better manager no matter what system you use.
Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly (Diversion Books, 2013) and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution (Diversion Books, 2015). He writes regularly about health and science for the Oregon Bioscience Association and about football for Philly.com, BleedingGreenNation.com, IgglesBlitz, and FishDuck.com. His work has also appeared in Harvard Magazine and the Oregonian newspaper.