Tag Archives: annual reviews

Gird Your Loins

….. It’s Time for the Annual Performance Review

Vague statements and labels, one-sided evaluations, surprises, and secondhand complaints are just the sorts of things that can make a person want to run away screaming from an annual performance evaluation–probably not the best career move. Here are some tips for dealing with these situations in a calm and collected manner.


It’s that time again: the ritual of yearly appraisals and performance reviews. If you’ve followed my writing, you know what I think of yearly appraisals and performance reviews. And, you know that the data is on my side.

Still, the vast majority of companies still mandate some form of annual review with ratings, rankings, and bell curves. Except for people who receive top ratings, these reviews can be discouraging, demotivating, and soul-destroying. But, refusing to participate is a career-limiting move.

Four of the most destructive dynamics in reviews involve vague feedback and labels, one-sided assessments, surprises, and second-hand complaints. I hope that your review doesn’t go down that road. But, in case it does, here are strategies you can use to hold on to your dignity and obtain some useful information.

Vague Statements and Labels

Several years ago at about this time of year, I was talking to a group about feedback. One woman shared that she had just had her annual review and received a below-average rating because, her boss said, she was “too nice.”

I’m sorry, but that isn’t useful feedback; it’s a label. There was no way for the receiver to act on that label, other than to start being mean. If your boss uses a label to summarize some aspect of your performance, ask for examples. But, do so carefully, so that your boss doesn’t infer that you are challenging his assessment.

Start by creating an opening by saying something such as, “I’d really like to learn more about that perception, so that I can decide what changes will be most effective in this area. Can we set up a time to discuss specific examples?”

If your boss says no, you’ve got bigger problems than a useless label. Fortunately, it’s unlikely he will respond that way. It’s more likely that your boss won’t have those examples at his finger tips and may need time to think back over the situations that led to his conclusion. Pressing him during the review may make him feel defensive and lead him to label you as resistant–downward spiral, here we come!

When you do have the opportunity for further exploration, ask for recent examples. You need enough information to allow you to recognize and remember the situation. Once you have data that you both agree on, ask to understand how your boss sees your actions affecting your ability to do your job. For example, the too-nice lady might have asked, “How do you see my style getting in my way?” or “How did my style affect my credibility or ability to do my job in the situation we’re talking about?”

Part of everyone’s job growth is developing a greater repertoire of options for action, so ask for some coaching while acknowledging the data. “Yes, I did do that. At the time, I didn’t pause to consider other options. Will you help me think through some other alternatives that would have been more effective?”

One-sided Evaluations

If your boss makes an assessment that you feel doesn’t cover all the facts of the situation, add more information.

Excuses don’t sway most bosses. But, when there are circumstances beyond your control that affect your ability to finish assignments, your boss should take them into account (and work to correct the situation so you can succeed).

It’s almost never a good strategy to argue with the ref, so start by acknowledging what is accurate in your boss’s assessment. You might say something such as, “I can see how that’s a problem, and I’m not making excuses. I would like to share some more information about how that situation came about.”

Share additional information in as neutral a way as you can, and avoid blaming other people. After you’ve laid out the data, own what you can about the situation. Maybe you didn’t raise the red flag to indicate there was a problem early enough. Maybe you didn’t consider more than one option. Whatever it is, if you can own your part of the situation, your boss will see that you aren’t trying to shift the blame.

Then, move to problem solving by making an opening such as, “I would like to discuss how to handle the situation should it arise again.”


One of the worst things a manager can do in an annual review is spring a surprise on you. But, sadly, some managers wait until the end of the year to tell people about a problem that’s festered for months.

If this happens to you, acknowledge your manager’s point of view and the importance he puts on the situation. You won’t be able to bring your best thinking to the situation when you are caught off guard. Ask for a follow-up meeting within the next week, so that it’s clear you aren’t trying to brush off the concern.

Secondhand Complaints

Bearing secondhand feedback is a sure way to erode trust. But, some so-called performance-management systems rely on it, and some managers fall into the trap.

Vague or puzzling secondhand feedback presents a problem similar to vague labels–you don’t have enough information to make a choice about what to change. Use a similar opening: “I’d like to learn more about that perception. Can you arrange for me to have a follow-up conversation with the person who gave that feedback?”

If that fails, ask if your boss shares the assessment from the anonymous source, and seek clarification from him.

If the secondhand feedback is a complaint about the way you do your job, ask your boss to arrange a meeting so that you can repair the working relationship.

Most people are open to feedback when they believe that the source is reliable, the receiver trusts the giver’s intentions, the receiver has a chance to clarify, and the process–both how the feedback is developed and how it’s delivered–is fair.

Too many annual reviews violate some or all of these principles, but if you use the strategies in this column, you can restore some of the balance and gain helpful information.

Eliminate Performance Reviews!

Samuel Culbert interviewed on NPR.

Employee performance reviews should be eliminated, according to UCLA business professor Samuel Culbert. “First, they’re dishonest and fraudulent. And second, they’re just plain bad management,”

There’s also an excerpt from Culbert’s book, Get Rid of the Performance Review! He doesn’t pull any punches.

It’s time to finally put the performance review out of its misery.

This corporate sham is one of the most insidious, most damaging, and yet most ubiquitous of corporate activities. Everybody does it, and almost everyone who’s evaluated hates it. It’s a pretentious, bogus practice that produces absolutely nothing that any thinking executive should call a corporate plus.

And yet few people do anything to kill it.

How could that be? How could something so obviously destructive, so universally despised, continue to plague our workplaces?

In part it’s because the performance review is all executives have ever known, and they’re blind to the damage caused by it.

In part it’s because few managers are aware of their addiction to the fear that reviews create amongst staff, and too many lack the confidence that they can lead without that fear.

In part it’s because HR professionals exploit the performance review to provide them a power base they don’t deserve.

And in part it’s because few people know an alter-native for getting the control, accountability, and employee development that reviews supposedly produce—but never do…

They fail to realize the most essential tool they have in getting quality performances is a trusting relationship with the people who work for them. It’s really that simple. If they understood this, there never would be something as stupidly one-sided as a performance review that is defined by domination by the boss.

As you know, putting an end ratings, rankings, and annual evaluations has been one of my personal crusades for some time.  Glad to have some company.

I suspect many managers would be happy to dispense with reviews.  But reviews are inextricably tied to another damaging practice, so-called merit pay.  So if we want to get rid of performance reviews, we have to get rid of the illusion of merit-pay, too.

A few ideas about what to do instead in an article I wrote a couple of years ago.

Shocking Survey Results about Performance Appraisal

The landed in my inbox this morning:

In a famous Leadership IQ study, we surveyed 48,012 CEOs, Managers & Employees about their performance appraisals. Here’s the shocking results: Only 13% of Managers & Employees thought their performance appraisals were effective. And only 6% of CEOs thought their appraisals were effective. We also discovered that only 14% of employees say their performance appraisal conversation offered meaningful and relevant feedback.

Actually, I’m not shocked by these results. Not even surprised.

What is shocking is that many organization continue to add layers of process, systems, and training, in an effort to make a fundamentally broken concept work.

I’m not saying we don’t need feedback. We do need information about results and behavior. That information needs to be relevant, timely, and actionable. For ideas on how to make feedback useful look here.

I’m not saying that we don’t need to have conversations about performance.

I’m not saying managers don’t need to make decisions about whether a person’s performance matches the needs of the job.

But the typical performance appraisal process fails to give useful feedback, fails to promote meaningful conversation, and seldom leads to decisions about fit for job.


Applying “the simplest thing that could possibly work” principle

What problem are organizations trying to solve with incentive pay?

Is an incentive plan the simplest, most effective way to address the problem?

Most managers believe that incentive pay plans encourage the desired behavior, drive performance improvement, and reward (individual) achievement. That may be the case, with certain kinds of work.

But before looking to incentive pay to improve performance, look at the work system.

What are the organizational impediments that might be preventing desired performance?

What else might be preventing people from achieving the desired results?

Do people have a clear understanding of how their work contributes to the bottom line and the companies mission?

Do people have a clear expectation of what’s expected of them day-to-day?

Do people have the tools to perform?

Do they have the skills?

Are they receiving feedback from the system and from their peers and managers?

Will individual incentives actually encourage the behavior the organization says it wants?

Will the side effects of incentive pay help or hinder the organization?

These questions need to precede the decision to use incentive pay to drive behavior and results.

As Ann Bares, writing for Workforce.com says,

Much as our management “customers” might like to believe the contrary, incentives are not a sound substitute for an effective organizational structure, good management practices or clear and regular communication.

So work on improving the system and managing well before looking to incentive pay to improve performance and results. That’s the simplest thing to do. Plus, for interdependent work, incentive pay is likely the wrong level to pull.

Read Ann Bares’ full article here (requires free registration).

An unambiguous answer

We’ve all heard the jokes about consultants who answer every question, “It depends.”

Actually, it often does depend on the context. Not this time.

Someone asked me recently if ScrumMasters (or other agile coaches) should be involved in yearly performance reviews, ratings, and rankings.

You can read my unambiguous answer here.