By Jim Struck

On Monday, October 20, 2008 Samuel Culbert wrote In the Wall Street Journal that we should get rid of the performance review because it “destroys morale, kills teamwork, and hurts the bottom line.” His main reference was to those annual performance reviews that are given to determine the raise of the individual. Culbert believes that the promise of the performance review, to provide objective evaluation that helps determine pay and lets employee’s know where they can to better, is not the experience of most people. Inevitably, he states, reviews are political and subjective, and create schisms in boss-employee relationships. The link between pay and performance is tenuous at best. The notion of objectivity is absurd; people who switch jobs often receive much different evaluations from their new bosses.

Mr. Culbert’s information got my attention. For most of professional career I have been a big proponent of performance reviews…DONE WELL. In fact, it is one of the chief ways that we tell our staff in specific ways how we support and value them. Unfortunately, I believe Culbert is likely right in terms of what we actually get versus what we hope we get. I think he is particularly right if the review itself is tied immediately to what someone will earn. At that point the employee is more concerned about hearing what their raise is rather than anything connected to performance. The manager very often is busy trying to justify what the pay will be. In the end…there is not as much objectivity and not as much value in the information then if the review were delivered at a separate time from when pay determination is made.

I will talk about Mr. Culbert’s alternative a little later. Before I do, I want to visit why I believe many managers have a negative attitude about performance reviews and what we fail to understand about their purpose and promise.

Rather than call them performance reviews I prefer to view them as another form of feedback, a “dialog of information” about what has gone well, where the opportunities for growth/change are, and where I, as your manager, can help. It is a dialog of commitment to the success of the two of us, although it is mostly discussing the associate.

The disconnect comes in a couple of ways. First, we need to understand that 86% of the population has some degree of difficulty with conflict or confrontation. Second, many managers have received little or no formal training in how to best conduct the performance review.

With so many people struggling with conflict/confrontation it is easy to see why so many people want to avoid it. If leaders are untrained they will likely see the performance review as confrontation. This very often leads to non-direct and unclear communication with the “difficult” parts of the review. We think that we have communicated what we were supposed to, yet often the employee walks away trying to figure out what he/she was just told. There is likely to be more tension between the manager and employee.

Remember from my last column that one of the chief motivators for staff, and ourselves, is clarity around our role and job expectations. When we are unclear we are unsure, and when we are unsure we very often do not perform at the level we are capable. We either enhance our relationship with our employees based on how the review is conducted (i.e., timeliness, balanced, useful information, etc.). It is easy to see how performance problems are compounded by how we approach the performance discussion.

One of the keys to a good performance discussion is in the relationship. If we are able to establish a good working relationship (supportive, directive, encouraging, respectful) then we can likely think about the information we need to share as being just that…information. It has nothing to do with “being liked, being loved.” It has everything to do with you helping the employee to fit into the team, being clear about their role and what the expectations are, being supportive (teaching, coaching, correcting, encouraging) and expressing how we value them as a member of the team when it is warranted. We are not responsible for motivating them, but we are responsible for creating the environment that fosters motivation.

Reviews then are about exchanging information and viewing even the difficult messages as part of that information. If we can learn to deliver our reviews as vital pieces of information that the employee needs to be successful, then reviews have the chance to be less of a corporate hair ball and more of what is intended…an exchange of information.

Back to Mr. Culbert. His solution…Performance Previews. In contrast to one-side-accountable reviews, performance previews are reciprocally accountable discussions about how boss and employee are going to work together even more effectively than they did in the past. Mr. Culbert believes that with the boss having accountability along with the employee the system works to be more supportive. Likewise, there is an opportunity to get more done because the discussion is more future directed. I like the notion of reciprocal accountability. If we understood more implicitly that we need each other to be successful, perhaps it would alter how we work and communicate with one another.

While I don’t fully share Mr. Culbert’s views of the reviews, I do see the politics, the unproductive conversations, and the increased tension that arises before, during, and after many reviews. My observation of reviews/previews in the collection industry is that we can do better. Whether it is with the timeliness of information or teaching managers how to conduct a productive performance conversation, we need to promote more positive conversations about how we compliment each others’ skills to get things done. This collaboration helps foster a culture that is more motivating and tends to generate better production. Compare this to an atmosphere where reviews or previews are done inconsistently if at all and are more about what an individual has done wrong than right. Where would you rather work?