Beyond the Performance Review

From the Wall Street Journal, an idea for a better performance management tool than the much despised performance review:

The alternative to one-side-accountable, boss-administered/subordinate-received performance reviews is two-side, reciprocally accountable, performance previews.

Let me explain.

The boss’s assignment is to guide, coach, tutor, provide oversight and generally do whatever is required to assist a subordinate to perform successfully. That’s why I claim that the boss-direct report team should be held jointly accountable for the quality of work the subordinate performs. I’m sick and tired of hearing about subordinates who fail and get fired, while bosses, whose job it was to ensure subordinate effectiveness, get promoted and receive raises in pay.

Holding performance previews eliminates the need for the boss to spout self-serving interpretations about what already has taken place and can’t be fixed. Previews are problem-solving, not problem-creating, discussions about how we, as teammates, are going to work together even more effectively and efficiently than we’ve done in the past. They feature descriptive conversations about how each person is inclined to operate, using past events for illustrative purposes, and how we worked well or did not work well individually and together.

The preview structure keeps the focus on the future and what “I” need from you as “teammate and partner” in getting accomplished what we both want to see happen. It doesn’t happen only annually; it takes place each time either the boss or the subordinate has the feeling that they aren’t working well together.

Realistic assessment of someone’s positive qualities requires replacing scores on standardized checklists with inquiry. As a result, step No. 1 in giving effective feedback almost always involves “active questioning” inquiry. Inquiry contrasts with most performance reviews, which begin with how the evaluator sees the individual and what that boss has already decided most needs enhancing. Both participants need an answer to the most significant issue at hand: “Given who I am and what I’m learning about this other individual, what’s the best way for us to complement one another in getting work accomplished with excellence?” If in the process the other person decides to change and develop, so much the better.

Bosses should be asking all the questions that occur to them in inquiring about how a subordinate thinks he or she can best perform the job. Then, after they have exhausted their questions, they should ask the subordinate for what else they need to know. At a minimum, they should be asking “How will you be going about it?” and “Specifically, what help do you need from me?” Why not get it all when, at the end of the day, the boss still has the authority to play ultimate decider?

Some of you may also ask if the performance review goes away, how do we prepare the groundwork if we want to fire somebody? For the better, I’d argue: Take away the performance review, and people will find more direct ways of accomplishing that task.

Substituting performance previews for performance reviews promotes straight-talk relationships for people who are up to it. It welds fates together because the discussion will be about what the boss-subordinate team accomplishes together, which I believe is the valid unit to hold accountable. It’s the boss’s responsibility to find a way to work well with an imperfect individual, not to convince the individual there are critical flaws that need immediate correcting, which is all but guaranteed to lead to unproductive game playing and politically inspired back-stabbing.

There are many bosses who would like to change that game, but they feel handcuffed by the rules already in play. I’d like to believe that if given the chance, they would embrace a system that allows them just as much authority — but in a way that promotes trust, not intimidation.

Keep in mind, of course, that improvement is each individual’s own responsibility. You can only make yourself better. The best you can do for others is to develop a trusting relationship where they can ask for feedback and help when they see the need and feel sufficiently valued to take it. Getting rid of the performance review is a necessary, and affirming, step in that direction.

—Dr. Culbert is a consultant, author and professor of management at the UCLA Anderson School of Management in Los Angeles. He can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

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