Performance anxiety

I’m no fan of the performance review. In fact I’d class it as the single biggest example of the old joke about the definition of insanity being the repetition of an act whilst expecting different results.

It isn’t working? Then change the form.

Everyone hates performance reviews, they suck the life force out of managers, employees, the HR department and the leadership team. And yet, we kind of need them.

I was having a conversation with a friend last week and they were bemoaning the torture that is the annual performance appraisal. The sentiment went something like this,

“And then they expect us to review people against these stupid f***ing values that make no sense to anyone. Why can’t we just get in, get out and get the job done.”

And I’ve got some sympathy. We all like the idea of a quickie. The performance equivalent of a knee trembler behind the bicycle shed.

But the thing is this, if you think about the best manager you’ve ever had, if you think about the best team you ever worked with, if you think about the most problematic experience you’ve ever had at work. Was it because of the delivery of the work, or was it because of the behaviours and the personal qualities?

My guess is the latter.

The challenge for us in HR, the challenge for those of us who aren’t sleep walking towards conformity and a mediocre stupor, is to think about how we reinvent and rethink this important aspect of our working lives.

– We know the value of human and heart in the workplace, and yet we systemise it to the point of ridicule and derision.

– We know the value of feedback and honest, open discussions, and yet we develop such complex processed that it becomes a task in itself.

– We know that what we have isn’t fit for purpose and yet we persist in tinkering not transforming.

And yet, I just can’t come up with an answer.

That’s what is on my mind. What’s on yours?


  1. daviddsouza180 · July 14, 2014

    The best managers can get a great, constructive conversation with guidance notes on the back of an envelope. The best process, when executed by managers who aren’t great, will still feel like a life draining event.

    Part of the issue is about enabling people to have conversations that focus on the output rather than the fact a script had been followed. Ironically (or perhaps logically) the only time I’ve seen this really sink home is through it being role modelled by Senior Teams. You, broadly, get the behaviour you legitimise. It is the same for reviews – if the leaders in the organisation take time over it (not as as a process, but as an investment of time) then you can get a different result.

    Give people a form – they follow a form. Help people know it’s OK to aspire for more…they feel comfortable doing more than chasing out ‘our’ deadline.

    I’ve lost track of the number of PM/review redesigns I’ve done. The best I’ve ever managed through paperwork is make the process less painful. The best I’ve manged through conversations? That’s felt more like change.

    • Neil · July 20, 2014

      You make a really valid point, the whole “complete the form” thing makes it a process. And when we create a process, people see that as the purpose.

  2. changinghr · July 14, 2014

    Nice one Neil. The fear of radical change still pervades perhaps ? Where appraisal and pay are linked it helps drive the size of the pot provided for annual salaries to be apportioned so the finance guys love it for it’s risk mitigation when it comes to dishing it out. Following the money those finance guys are still the cleverest guys in the room too and their annual madness holds sway. And anyway any alternative looks too much like old school socialism where you hand it equally across the pot. Finding a way of holding up the mirror to organisations, backed by some clear insight and a bit of bravery in a short term world means our evolutionary approach of one conversation at a time is the only show in town. I can understand why many choose to change the form through, it’s the organisation equivalent of putting o the kettle again.

    • Neil · July 20, 2014

      I hate performance related pay. I have never seen it work well.

  3. littlebrownbird · July 14, 2014

    I’m adding this to my list after I’ve got rid of the probation period….another mood/life/motivation hoover……

  4. littlebrownbird · July 14, 2014

    I’m putting this on my hit list for review after I’ve got rid of the probation period…..

    • Neil · July 20, 2014

      So good she said it twice…..

  5. Ben Patient (@ben_patient) · July 14, 2014

    The performance review needs to involve the employee, and measure against mutually identified goals. I recently posted a blog on the annual review process. Otherwise we are wasting our time by continuing to do the review the way that we have been.

    • Neil · July 20, 2014

      “Mutually identified goals” is the sort of language that makes most employees want to poke their eyeballs out though, no?

  6. dougshaw · July 15, 2014

    It’s the end of a hot, long day slaving over a hot computer. Here goes…

    Overwhelmingly I recall appraisals as a waste of time. Scripted and meaningless. A problem is that too often they are the key to the money chest, and little more. So – everyone jumps through the necessary hoops then crosses their fingers.

    Separate reward and performance. Tough one. I think this needs complete pay transparency and many any other things to be in place too. So – whilst we ponder how to unwind the crap and rebuild something more meaningful, how about about appraisals in the form of peer reviews instead of boss to subordinate? That could be an interesting shift?

    Re: feedback and open and honest discussions – I recommend Creativity Inc. as a good read to explore how to make this seemingly obvious yet simultaneously tricky thing work better.

    Re: heart – maybe that’s the thing. Ask this – together, have we made this place more heartfelt? If yes – how? If no – what needs to change? A sub test of this might be to see how many people cringe when the word heartfelt is used, and try to find out why? In preparing for a workshop earlier this year, I recall I recall being asked by the sponsor not to use the word flourish, as in ‘what do you need to flourish?’ – because it made people feel uncomfortable. I wish I’d pushed back and asked why.

    How can we encourage people to stop leaving their heart and soul at the front desk when they arrive for work?

    Thinking about your post and my reaction to it is bringing me to the edge of tears. I’m just not sure if they are tears of hope or despair, or maybe it’s just my knees about to give way #trembler 😉

    • Neil · July 20, 2014

      I absolutely agree re Creativity Inc.

      Don’t cry, together we can work this one out. Honest. 🙂

  7. broc.edwards · July 16, 2014

    “Why can’t we just do our jobs?” Interesting question that ignores that a crucial part of doing our jobs is figuring out how to do them better. For that, people need to give feedback and people need to learn from feedback. Except… people suck at giving useful feedback and people suck at receiving and learning from feedback. Not all, of course, but enough to make the process painful for many. Managers seem surprised they need to evaluate performance and employees seem surprised that their performance is being evaluated.

    I suspect one of the biggest challenges is that the whole eval process tends to feel like it’s nailed on as an afterthought vs being a part of the work process. Feedback is useless when remote, isolated, and detached from actions.

    • Neil · July 20, 2014

      So, in summary. “People suck”?

      Yep, that’s why we work in HR. 🙂

  8. Pingback: The appraisal praised - HRville

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