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Performance reviews have an image problem. Currently, “performance review” is right up there with “root canal” and “tax audit” as things that people dread. But with a little bit of retooling, managers can turn performance reviews into a much less painful exercise for themselves and their employees and help uncover what employees need to grow and do their best work for the organization.

Frankly, there’s plenty of room for improvement. According to recent research, over half of employees think their managers don’t get the performance review right, and only one in five felt that their company’s performance practices motivated them. Those aren’t stellar numbers.

Part of this lackluster response stems from the fact that performance reviews are too often treated by managers as a check-the-box exercise, something that mainly needs to be completed for HR purposes to provide “documentation” around who gets merit raises and who gets promoted.

Instead, what if managers used performance reviews to learn from employees where they think their skills and performance gaps are? And what if rather than just being a backward-looking corrective tool, reviews were a forward-looking opportunity for growth and advancement?

Here are some steps to re-orienting performance reviews from a disciplinary tool to a development and growth opportunity:

  • Kill the annual review: When people hear “performance review” they tend to think “annual event”. That’s way too infrequent. There should be ongoing check-ins around performance on a quarterly, monthly, or even more frequent basis so that managers have their fingers on the pulse of how things are going. Research backs this up. In a workplace survey of 1000 workers, 92% of respondents said they “prefer to receive feedback more often than once a year”, with 72% leaning towards monthly feedback. Fully 49% said they would prefer to hear from their managers at least weekly.
  • Stop focusing on flaws: For too long the purpose of the performance review was to satisfy the bell curve for merit raises — who's getting the highest percentages, who's in the middle and who's getting the lowest percentages. So often they are focused on flaws. But the idea should not be to pick someone apart or to find areas to criticize so that you can come across as a “tough but fair” overlord. Rather, the idea is to identify where things are going well, in addition to identifying where there are opportunities for improvement. The goal of performance reviews should be to advance your employees, which ultimately advances your company. 
  • Figure out what improvement looks like. Most employees have things they don’t do as well as you’d like at work. But that doesn't mean they're a bad employee; they're just really struggling in certain areas where you’d like them to step up. What training are you offering them? What guidance are you offering them to make them promotable? What resources are you offering? What collaborative opportunities are being offered? For example, maybe you have a sales rep who is struggling to meet their numbers. What if they took a two week certificate program around best practices for making use of all the latest and greatest functionality in the salesforce CRM platform the company utilizes? Could that help jumpstart their efforts? Maybe some of your marketing team could benefit from a quick course in big data or marketing analytics in order to implement their email campaigns more skillfully and strategically.
  • This is not a rebuttal session: Performance reviews work best as a two-way street, so the employees themselves should feel free to proactively bring up things in addition to job performance. There should be discussions about culture and how well and where they fit in. It’s a chance for a manager to do some coaching. Performance reviews are as much about retention as anything. By showing an employee that there's a path to growth, a path to promotion, and a path to leadership opportunities, you increase the likelihood of retaining top talent. The employer might use the opportunity to identify and connect them  with mentors. 

This is not to suggest problem employees get a pass. There needs to be more transparency in these performance reviews, too, so that the employee isn't being given a false sense of security or a false sense of value. If they are not doing a good job, show no interest in growing and improving then they need to know they should move on.

There’s a saying in business that if you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients. By turning performance reviews into an opportunity to unlock employee potential and deliver the skills they need, managers can do right by their employees, and in turn, do right by the business so that it remains competitive and continues operating at the highest levels.

Eric Lloyd is Executive Director of Denison Edge, located in downtown Columbus, OH.

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