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8 reasons for HR to rethink traditional performance reviews

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June 13, 2023
By Todd Humber

Joe Rotella, chief value officer at Delphia Consulting LLC, addressed a pack room at SHRM23 in Las Vegas on June 12.

LAS VEGAS — The pandemic exposed a major weakness in traditional performance reviews, according to Joe Rotella, chief value officer at Delphia Consulting LLC.

In the early days of COVID, as lockdowns were announced and some workplaces went remote, his phone rang.

“I actually had an HR person call me and say, ‘We can’t change our goals.’ Why? ‘Because we set them in January, and we don’t revisit them until June, and now it’s March and everything’s just gone right to hell,’” he told a packed room at the Society of Human Resource Management’s 2023 conference and expo yesterday in Las Vegas.

Rotella put performance management under a microscope, identifying eight reasons to rethink the traditional approach to evaluating staff.


1 – Traditional ‘annual cycles’ are artificial

Annual cycles don’t reflect the need for real time adjustments, he said. And those timelines aren’t keeping pace with the technological change affecting organizations. Rotella shared a story of a marketing piece that was created for his local SHRM chapter. He heaped praise on the volunteer who put it together.

“He wrote back and he’s like, ‘Oh, AI generated it in like 30 seconds,” said Rotella. “And I’m like, ‘Who’s AI? Are they on the board?’ I can’t keep up. We’re changing faster than ever before in our known evolution — but we still have the annual performance review.”

He harkened back to the TV infomercial days and Ronco’s “set it and forget it” slogan for its rotisserie.

“That’s absolutely not what you (should) do with performance reviews. But this is what you do,” he said.

“Every January, you set goals and then you lock them away in a temple-like structure. You set it and forget it for six months at a time.”

2 – Managers and employees hate the process

Rotella noted that some systems give managers the ability to select from pre-written comments by simply checking off boxes to author a narrative for the review.

“How authentic is that? So the night before the review, the manager is like, ‘Oh, that looks good’… and spins the wheel,” he said. “Even social dating apps, I don’t think they have a list of canned responses.”

It’s hard to look back over the last six months and provide meaningful, accurate feedback on workers, said Rotella.

And, he noted that according to Samuel A. Culbert and Lawrence Rout’s book Get Rid of the Performance Review!, between 60 per cent and 90 per cent of employees and managers dislike the process.

3 – The lines are blurred between supervisor/supervisee

Many employers have very flat teams, with little hierarchy between supervisors and workers, he said.

“This is very typical in smaller organizations. And it’s good, because it promotes increased involvement in decision-making if the manager’s good,” he said.

The first three rules of the seven rules to be a better business are worth repeating: Lose the ego; be humble; and be curious.

“(With flat teams)  an approach with feedback from one supervisor doesn’t fit,” he said. And before organizations start trumpeting 360-degree feedback, that’s not a panacea either, because the work of one employee can be done for many different supervisors in a flat organization.

Goals need to be set collaboratively, with the team member and manager sitting down together, he said. That doesn’t mean the worker dictates the goals — far from it. It just changes the conversation from the manager trying to sell the idea in a one-sided pitch to doing it in tandem to get full buy-in and understanding.

4 – Hard to connect the dots

When there are a lot of moving parts, it’s easy for employees to struggle to connect the dots between their goals and their job. They need to understand how goals help the organization, their job performance, and their development path.

“Do you have any employees where sometimes they do something and you’re thinking, ‘Oh my god, do you understand why your job is so important? Can you connect the dots on this?’” he said.

He gave the example of his website designer, who he gave feedback to on how to improve SEO. The designer implemented the changes and came armed to the next meeting with data on how the improved pages were ranking higher in Google, said Rotella.

“Without being asked. He got it,” he said. “And then he converted the whole site and reported on it every week, without being asked, because he connected the dots.”

When you give someone a goal, it must come with an explanation of what it relates to and what it contributes to, he said. When you connect those dots, engagement goes up, he said.

Good job descriptions are key, and those should be reviewed regularly by the people doing the work — not HR, and not the manager — because things simply change too fast, he said.

5 – Increasing focus on teams, not individuals

As organizations place more important and emphasis on teams, co-ordinating all that can be a struggle, he said.

“You have to align everybody’s efforts and you have to share information among some folks that maybe aren’t even in your silo,” said Rotella. “If this is going to work, you have to make sure that your goals and objectives are clear. And there has to be transparency across those silos.”

6 – Goals aren’t top of mind

Rotella posed a question to the SHRM attendees — how many of them set goals in January and, every week, print them out and add some notes?

“If that’s you, please leave,” he joked. “Nobody does that. You set it and forget it.”

The problem is that goals are in the future, but “we work in the present,” he said. “It takes a lot of effort to constantly keep that goal in mind, and there’s that law of diminishing intent. The longer you wait to start doing something, the less likely you are to do it.”

He shared the story of a TikTok he watched the night before, with a gardener discussing the best time to plant a fruit tree. The answer? 10 years ago. But the second best time is right now, she said.

“The longer you wait, you’re just never gonna do it and another year is going to go by,” he said. “You’re more likely to succeed if working on your goals is part of your routine.”

7 – Focus on motivation seems to be missing

The answer to the question: “Why do you have a performance review process?” seems to be the same, he said.

“Because we always have, because it’s in the HR bible,” said Rotella. “It’s a commandment you’re supposed to have. “

But it’s not doing the job, and it’s not doing what it was expected to do, he said.

“We focus on feedback. In those reviews, we’re always looking back and evaluating sometimes what you did five months ago,” he said. “I don’t see, in sports, where the coach goes out silent the whole game and at the end of the game says, ‘Here’s all the things you guys did right and wrong.’”

Instead, they’re involved during the game — because they’re trying to change the results.

“Yet, we step back and don’t do anything for six months. Managers have to be in there all the time,” he said.

Instead of feedback, the focus has to be on feed forward, he said. That puts the emphasis on positive change in selected behaviours.

“Don’t focus too much on the past. Just do a little snippet and use it say, ‘Now what are we going to do differently in the future?’ But you don’t just keep drilling in what you did right or wrong from months and months ago.”

He cited MIT’s Alyce Johnson and the four dimensions of coaching:

  • Providing direction
  • Improving performance
  • Opening up possibilities
  • Resource for removing obstacles

8 – Analysis is difficult or impossible

Rotella said analysis of reviews is almost impossible. Most organizations don’t know which department has the worst performance, or which managers marks everybody high on the scale regardless of true performance.

Performance management is “rearview mirror only” — often in June and December, he said, and that’s a tough way to drive a car.

“It’s hard when you only have two data points to identify correlations between behaviours and performance,” said Rotella.

Rethinking the process

After rolling through the eight problem areas, Rotella turned his attention to the solution: Continuous feedback and continuous performance management, which will boost employee engagement, he said.

“And employee engagement is not the same as job satisfaction. It’s the extra mile, the extra passion that somebody does for their job,” he said.

He outlined four types of employee engagement:

Towards the organization: Identification with the mission, vision and values.

Towards work: Performing duties with a high level of commitment.

Towards the profession: Strong identification with individual objectives related to professional development

Towards collaboration: Interactions with managers and co-worker.

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