When Performance Reviews Underperform

by Billy Pittard on April 22, 2011

By Dr. Mark Goulston and Billy Pittard

When subordinates do not have a clear picture of their manager’s expectations of what success looks like, they will make up their own definition of success.

Many people suffer from performance anxiety when it comes to giving or receiving employee performance reviews. By inadvertently colluding to get through the process as quickly and painlessly as possible, managers and subordinates squander a great opportunity to positively affect performance, productivity, and results for their company, as well as help both the manager and the subordinate succeed individually.

These observations come as no surprise to either manager or subordinate. So why the avoidance?

There are a number of reasons:

1. Performance reviews seem like a distraction from actually getting work done. Giving and receiving performance reviews seems so far removed from the daily tasks of both managers and subordinates, that neither have much comfort or confidence that they will be done well or be useful.

2. For performance reviews to work, subordinates need to be willing to be held accountable and managers need to be willing to hold them accountable. This feels to both that even more effort outside of each person’s area of competence will need to be expended.

3. Prior experience with the uselessness of performance reviews from prior jobs causes each to believe that this occasion will be no different.

4. Managers who have had bad experiences receiving performance reviews don’t want to do the same to their subordinates.

5. Subordinates who take things too personally and are too easily upset make managers want to avoid the emotional fallout that can come from a critical review.

6. Managers may be reluctant to criticize a subordinate if the manager feels culpable in having not articulated a clear understandable goal, assigned tasks clearly, or provided necessary training.

The biggest problem for both managers and subordinates when performance reviews are done poorly is that at the end of them, both people will nod agreeing to some course of action going forward that is not clear to either. When subordinates do not have a clear picture of their manager’s expectations of what success looks like, they will make up their own definition of success.

In the vast majority of cases, what that subordinate defines as success will differ significantly from their manager’s. This is a potential set up for the subordinate working very hard towards the wrong goals. The subordinate is likely to focus on a narrow portion of what is important to their manager and to their company, or they may set goals that are completely out of alignment with those of their employer.

Steven Covey has said that too many people spend their careers climbing a ladder to what they think will bring them success, only to discover that their ladder has been on the wrong wall.

What is the solution?

There is an old saying, “Where there is a will there is a way.” In truth, its converse “Where there is a way, there is a will,” is perhaps more to the point. Too often subordinates that can’t clearly see a way, will not have the will to move. This is especially true when in the past they have taken initiative, done things the best way they knew how, only to be dinged “Monday morning quarterback” style, by a manager who had not been as clear in his direction beforehand as he is in his criticism after the fact.

Alternatively when the way is clear, people find the will to do it. That may explain the trend in executive coaching, especially the model developed by Marshall Goldsmith, to make prescriptions for professional development, very specific, observable, and measurable to both the coach and his/her stakeholders who have provided input.

The manager has a responsibility to provide the subordinate with very specific, observable, and measurable guidelines for performance. Although they may look at a goal through different eyes, the goal they see needs to be the same with complete understanding and agreement between manager and subordinate so that little is left to the imagination going forward.

Hands-on experience with performance reviews

At one point I (Billy) found myself personally responsible for over seventy employees’ performance reviews. It was a daunting task and I confess that my performance at doing those reviews was not very good. As pointed out above, both I and the employees had plenty of reasons to avoid them. But then I realized that I had a wonderful opportunity to turn a daunting task into a valuable process that would make my company better. Doing so many performance reviews gave me the opportunity to study how performance reviews really worked, and to figure out how to make them better. The fact that our staff members were well-compensated top creative talents made my performance in this task even more critical.

One big breakthrough was to make sure that each employee clearly understood what mattered most in his or her performance. I came to realize that almost everyone really does want to do a great job – but if I didn’t make sure each person knew what the company considered to be a great job, then each individual would make up their own criteria – and I can guarantee you that it would not be what was best for the company. It’s not that an employee necessarily had his or her own agenda and the company be damned, but that I had a responsibility to provide each employee with a clear understanding of how his or her performance would be evaluated. Otherwise employees would come to performance reviews believing that they had done a great job, but when I looked at their performance and saw that it was out of alignment with company goals, it was a lose-lose situation. The company has not gotten the performance it needed and employees were told that their performance was not good despite doing what they truly believed was a good job. It could be terribly demoralizing to an employee.

Eventually, I learned how to avoid this situation by providing high-quality documentation of specific performance criteria to each employee. I made sure each employee understood and agreed with the specific criteria for their performance, and I faithfully followed those documents as the measure for their performance when review time came around.

Performance criteria documents are far more helpful to an employee than a typical job description. Job descriptions tend to focus on tasks, but don’t usually cover some other important parts of what is needed in their performance, such as company values and goals. In contrast, a carefully crafted performance criteria document should cover the full spectrum of what is needed in the employee’s performance.

The foundation of a performance criteria document should be the company’s values and goals. When employees know their performance will be evaluated by how well they maintain those values and goals, they become very serious about adhering to them. Performance criteria documents provide a very strong mechanism for nurturing and reinforcing the company’s values and goals while providing very clear guidelines for each individual employee’s performance.

The first big step in creating performance criteria documents is to develop a clear, sincere statement of the values that makes a company what it is. These should be the values that the company would never compromise. It is no small job to identify these values, and it’s a very good idea to have the employees contribute to the identification of those values. Refinement will be necessary, but when the process is complete, you’ll have a very useful tool for keeping everyone’s efforts in alignment with the company’s values and goals – and you’ll have buy-in from the employees because they helped identify the values.

Unlike job descriptions, each employee’s performance criteria will have a lot in common with everyone else’s because they are all based upon the company’s values and goals. But each position’s specific performance criteria should vary according to their role. Different roles will have varying emphasis on the different values.

For example in my former company, creative excellence was our number one value, but only certain roles were in a position to do the creative work. People in non-creative roles were still held accountable for creative excellence by supporting those who did the creative work. Employees need to know what is important – even if they are not directly responsible for it.

A point that can’t be over-emphasized is that performance criteria documents should be detailed so that both manager and subordinate will be able to recognize success when it is achieved.

For example, one might think reviewing a graphic designer’s work to be a rather subjective process, and it probably would be unless you break it down into discrete components. Here are some aspects of a designer’s work that can be addressed separately: use of color, typography, composition, originality, adherence to project briefs, etc. I remember one designer whose work was very good, but by deliberately evaluating discrete aspects of her work I was able to point out that she was using a very similar color palette over and over. Thus I was able to provide a helpful insight to improve her future performance. Since I was using a comprehensive performance criteria document to guide the review, my criticism of her use of color was taken in a larger context in which she had many strengths. This helped her accept my criticism as constructive feedback, and therefore use it to improve her work – which she immediately did.

Another thing I noticed from my days of doing not-so-great performance reviews is that without comprehensive points for evaluation, there tended to be a lack of balance in the reviews. There always seemed to be too much focus in one area while other areas tended to be neglected. The employee’s total performance needs to be considered, and a comprehensive performance criteria document does just that. This is particularly helpful when an employee is doing well in most areas, but is having problems in one aspect. When the employee knows that their review will cover the full spectrum of their performance, it’s easier to accept criticism in one specific area. It keeps the review in balance, and prevents a certain criticism from dominating the review. The employee walks away from the review feeling good about their abilities, and feeling capable of improving the area of critical feedback. A well-crafted performance criteria document is a great way to assure full consideration to each area of the employee’s performance.

It’s important for the manager to keep in mind why we do performance reviews in the first place. If you’re not careful, performance reviews can be taken as a look back for which the employee expects to be either castigated for doing poorly or rewarded with a raise. But looking back is not what a performance review should be about. Instead, the right perspective is to ask “what information can I provide this employee that will help him or her reach a higher levels of performance in the future?” Certainly you look back to develop that feedback, but the focus should be about the future.

A raise or promotion shouldn’t be a reward for past performance, but fair compensation for future accomplishment. And one of the best guides and vehicles for making sure those future accomplishments occur are performance criteria documents which form the foundation for any effective performance review.

About my co-author:

Dr. Mark Goulston is a clinically trained psychiatrist and corporate consultant who works with executives, managers, and line workers to help them get out of their own way so they can realize the success that their skills, talents, and abilities deserve. He is currently Vice Chairman of the strategic advisory and management firm, Steele Partners, and is Chairman and co-founder of Xtraordinary Outcomes. He is the author of international best selling book, “Just Listen” Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone (AMACOM, $24.95) which has reached #1 at amazon.com in four business categories, #1 in China and Germany and has or is being translated into ten languages. His clients have included GE, IBM, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Kodak, Federal Express, the FBI, Los Angeles District Attorney, White & Case, and Seyfarth Shaw. Selected as one of America’s Top Psychiatrists for 2004-2005 by Consumers’ Research Council of America, Dr Goulston is a best selling author of five books and writes columns on leadership for FAST COMPANY, Directors Monthly, Knight Ridder Tribune, and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He is frequently called upon to share his expertise with regard to contemporary business, national and world news by television, radio and print media including: Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Newsweek, Time, Los Angeles Times, ABC/NBC/CBS/Fox/CNN/BBC News, Oprah, and Today.

Learn more about Dr. Goulston and sign up for his popular newsletter Usable Insights at MarkGoulston.com.


Sanford Danziger April 25, 2011 at 11:28 am

This is an excellent article. I especially liked the part about values and how they should be integral to the work/feedback, etc.
And it would seem to me that a give-and-take on all issues can be a part of the daily work. Thus the sentence in the beginning of the article, below, seems a bit out of place, at least in an ideal environment.

“Giving and receiving performance reviews are so far removed from the daily tasks of both managers and subordinates,”

Billy Pittard April 25, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Good point, Sanford! I changed that sentence to read “Giving and receiving performance reviews SEEMS so far removed from the daily tasks of both managers and subordinates…”
Thank you!

Craig July 12, 2011 at 7:38 am

Great article Billy. Passed on to my wife, Mary, who works in the corporate world with Verizon and she is constantly having to coach and do performance reviews. Thanks.

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