Samuel Culbert who writes for the New York Times recently had an article listed as one of the weeks best in “The Week” (p. 48 March 18, 2011) entitled “Time to Shred The Annual Review”.  Regular readers of this blog already know how much I would dearly love to engage in that long overdue action. However, I am just old enough experience-wise and cynical enough to believe that the lawyers would never agree– for their own litigious reasons — to any such thing.

Still I suggest we do focus on what Mr. Culbert would put in place of the formal annual review. He suggests that  organizations would run better if we replace top-down reviews with performance previews where bosses and subordinates share responsibility for setting goals and achieving results”.  “Rather than relying on the superior’s arbitrary metrics”, argues Culbert, “everyone would agree beforehand on how best to measure success.  The manager’s job would then be to coach or mentor employees  toward that success”.

What I especially like about this suggestion is that it is not incompatible with a mandatory formal annual review.  In fact, the sort of “performance preview” Mr. Culbert envisions could render the annual review easier to compose and less painful for all concerned.

Many managers, in my experience, spend far too little time recalling what it was like as a non-manager subordinate themselves, or trying to place themselves in their current subordinate’s shoes.  Knowing that the boss is watching your performance, judging that performance against some set of standards, and knowing that the results of that judgement process will have a direct influence on your advancement and pay decisions, introduces some element of stress into the subordinate-manager relationship regardless of your manager’s skill and effectiveness.  The more mystery that surrounds that performance evaluation process — especially regarding performance standards and judgment criteria — the greater the stress.

HR and management consultant Peter Block has written elegantly and humorously about the negatives encompassed by the annual review process, pointing out that it is inherently not an adult relationship; power is all one-sided (see “Stewardship” by Peter Block).  I still laugh every time I recall Peter’s detailed description of what it would be like if spouses gave each other an annual performance review.  But in many workplaces the annual review remains, and will remain, a requirement.  Thus Mr. Culbert’s formula for creating a partnership in which manager and subordinate agree in advance on performance evaluation criteria, introduces an element of how adult partners often make decisions and provides a means for reducing the stress a performance evaluation inevitably involves.

Moreover, when a subordinate experiences mentoring and coaching from the boss clearly designed to help them achieve the agreed upon success objectives, it clearly communicates the bosses’ dedication to seeing them succeed.  It also communicates the manager’s confidence that their mutual commitment to performance success will produce the desired results.

Knowing that your boss has confidence in your ability to perform up to your agreed upon expectations — and is willing to do her or his part to assist as needed — is a powerful motivator.  It creates a desire in most subordinates to work a little harder, go that extra mile, and to display the initiative and creativity necessary to achieve one’s goals.  An entire organization of such highly motivated subordinates is a wondrous thing to behold.

So managers, if you can not escape the annual performance review requirement, try your hand at making it easier and motivating your subordinates at the same time.  The results will not disappoint you.

Categories: Motivating Top Performance

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