Performance reviews generally suck. I’ve had some bad ones over the years. One of the worst was a review that graded me down because I was new to the job so, therefore, I could only be mediocre at best. Another manager figured he’d rate everyone mediocre because he only hired the best people and, therefore, our average score was the equivalent of a top score for anyone else and a top score was unachievable. And the number of times I’ve been reviewed against objectives I didn’t even know I had until the review period was up is surprisingly large. As a result, my own opinion of reviews is that they seem to be mostly a matter of luck not job performance; you get the right manager who likes you and you get a good review, otherwise you’ll likely not like what you got regardless of your actual performance. Add to this the horrid practice of Forced Ranking, which came out of the GE turnaround and nearly put many tech companies out of business, and you’d likely conclude correctly that performance reviews were in deep need of a massive change.
Before the Christmas break, I met with a firm that appears to have reviews sorted. Its process was based on a successful program that was first trialed by Patagonia and then advanced by a company called 15Five.
The Problem with Reviews
I think the core problem with reviews now is that they really aren’t designed to help and grow employees; they are designed to manage raises and promotions. In effect, they have become the exact opposite of what they were intended to be: a way to encourage and build a more effective team of employees. Reviews were less about quality of work and more about cost and title containment. More “this is why you aren’t getting a raise” and less about finding a way to make you more successful in your career and more valuable as an asset to the company. Often coming annually, they provided little in the way of timely help and development and simply became an answer to the question of why you weren’t promoted or given a raise.
What’s Needed with Reviews
If you want to grow employees, the emphasis needs to be put back on growth, support, and assuring the employees success, not just limiting the financial exposures from raises or title creep. This means the review process needs to be more frequent, needs to be more focused on the future and not the past, and needs to be a collaborative effort not only between managers and employees but between employees as well.
15Five: Why It Works
The first aspect of the solution that 15Five offers is a review process tied to the name: a weekly review that takes an employee 15 minutes to create and a manager five minutes to review. It is focused more on development and progress rather than criticism and effective disappointment management. This is backed up with a quarterly review process coming out of research done at the University of Michigan. This quarterly more in-depth review is also prepared by the employee and is focused on helping the employee become their best self. This includes making sure the employee and the job are well matched and a monolithic rating by the manager, allowing them to conscientiously assess their employees ranging from critical to the mission to ineffective in their current job. Employees are encouraged to call out peers for the help they have provided, and while they can also call out peer problems, that capability is far more difficult to use and it is not encouraged. This last helps reverse some of the Forced Ranking practices and should increase peer collaboration.
The quarterly review that the employee prepares lists the employee’s wins, strengths, weaknesses, frustrations, and one personal development objective and progress. This allows the manager to resource the problems and assess the strengths as needed, as well as identify high-value employees who may be at risk of departure. The weekly status reports (15Five) then pick up tracking on the elimination of any identified problem in the quarterly review.
Results should be greater employee growth, higher employee morale and productivity, increased collaboration, and better manager engagement.
Wrapping Up: Improving the Employee Review Process
The employee review process in most companies is badly broken, leading to low morale and an inability to effectively grow employees into the assets they might otherwise become. 15Five, working with large companies and universities, has created a credible review process that focuses much more tightly on growing employees into far greater assets. The result should increase employee productivity and retention, turning the review into a far more effective tool in the quest to make the firm more profitable.
The offering is worth checking out and it is consistent with the teachings of both Maslow and Hertzberg, who did much of the current foundational work on employee morale, motivation and human resource management.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+