A New Era for Performance Reviews

During my first job, I remember my manager giving me a list of goals to achieve. There was a web portal in which we had to update our goals. This was usually done soon after the pay hikes were given for the performance of the previous year. Let me explain: For instance, consider you joined an organization in January 2020 and you get your pay hike in the next cycle, April 2021. You will most likely be asked to submit your goals sometime in April/May 2021. You will now have to achieve your goals before end of December 2021. Now I remember submitting my goals and not having looked at for the longest of time. We got a reminder to submit our results. I recall how confused I was. How am I supposed to document my results against my goals? Do I just document what I did? Is there something more to be done? But that was just the tip of the iceberg. What followed was the exercise of traditional performance reviews. This is what usually happens: Your supervisor checks your results, reviews and compares this with your colleagues and his peers, and a performance rating is given to you. Based on this rating, your next pay hike is determined. And the trickling effect continues as this, in the times to come, could also determine possibilities of a new role or a promotion or a lateral movement within the organization.

At the beginning of my career, way back in 2003, I had read a Harvard Business Review article  ‘The Fear of Feedback’ by Jay M. Jackman and Myra H. Strober (Read it here https://hbr.org/2003/04/fear-of-feedback) which made me raise my eyebrows in surprise. I hadn’t had a real ‘Performance Review’ back then, and so I wondered why there was so much brouhaha about feedback at workplace. Don’t we seek and enjoy the feedback in academics with exams, practical, internship and viva voce? Then why do things change the moment we turn into employees, I had wondered.

As the years went by, I realized that the real fear of feedback was not of the review session but of presuming that a performance review (PR) would necessarily mean being criticized and ridiculed for the work that we do. But that’s the misconception that had, for years, marred PR sessions into something of a nightmare for many, resulting in seemingly cheerful colleagues suddenly being frozen on the day of the PR, sitting sheepishly, biting their nails, waiting for their turn. When we’re confident of the work that we have done, I really never understood why we must be apprehensive about seeking, getting and using feedback.

Perhaps, a lot has to do with human psychology. Every person harbors some childhood pain of being ridiculed, of not being good enough as told by parents or teachers, of being compared to siblings, of having been beaten by parents for studies and behavior or a deep sense of inferiority that mars several childhoods. That same complex runs amok when participating in a feedback session. Moreover, appraisal sessions are not easy for the bosses as well, since they have to bear with tears, choked voices and vengeful glances from their direct reports. That defeated the purpose of guiding someone towards personal and organizational growth, sharing expectations and looking back at how things have shaped up.

Thankfully, things have changed
  • For one, the traditional mechanism of one to one feedback, where the bosses hold your appraisal papers in hand and grill you for things done, not done or gone awry, are a thing of the past. A several many companies believe that if you have hired the right person with the right skills for the right task, all you need is to keep learning and deliver results.
  • With the weight of performance reviews off their backs, employees heaved a sigh of relief and can better focus on the job at hand, executives found. It also saved hundreds of hours of discussing what is obvious in the outcomes and is visible in daily work.
  • The age of mass increments based on allocable funds have long gone, when departments would debate about the two and five and ten percent increments. Now, it’s more of customized compensation packages, something that suits your skill sets, qualification, experience and delivery against set targets. So a young and junior employee could very well be drawing a higher salary than a senior older employee, simply because the former brings in latest and relevant skill sets to the table.
  • Even schools have done away with the annual exam model and rely on continuous evaluation and Summative and Formative Assessments. Did it take time for the corporate world to keep pace? Well, schools do not even give marks today, kids earn grades, because the numerical method of assessment puts unnecessary burden on the kid. Same is with the employees who dread the 1 to 10 rating system. They’d rather be categorized under the ‘ reward’, ‘accommodate’ or ‘dismiss’ model propagated by Jack Welch. Again, knowing ‘How’ you fare is far better than knowing ‘how much you scored’.
  • Several compulsions preceded the revolutionary methods of Performance Appraisals. Firstly, today’s employees multitask routinely. Also, they upgrade their skills regularly through continuous training, online courses and more. How, then, would you assess such a person with annual PR sessions? It has therefore evolved into a quick-and-instant feedback from the supervisor/ immediate boss about every project and every client engagement.
  • With the way businesses are progressing and keeping pace with technological advancement, employees have no option but to keep pace. That means learning, unlearning and relearning again and again. With knowledge at the center of the company’s growth machine, how would an annual appraisal serve the purpose of appraising an employee who has evolved?
  • The entire set up of a performance review is tense to say the least. Fear, disgust, guilt, anxiety on part of both employees and bosses, results in an environment fraught with an aura of being grilled and judged which no one likes. Instead, a regular, project to project discussion and immediate feedback removes the negativity associated with the regular PR. It also helps the bosses to steer their teams in the right direction without antagonizing anyone. It also keeps communication channels open and free flowing with feedback from both ends.
  • Several tasks that are done through computers get assessed and outcomes recorded in real time. Targets are set on the software, performance is mapped, reminders and warnings served and even termination letters issued automatically when a candidate repeated fails to achieve targets. All this is done without any human interference.

With more and more companies opting to do away with the annual (or periodical) Performance Reviews, the employees have reason to cheer. Several challenges still remain in this new system- like creating individual rubrics for rewarding the top performers and punishing the non-performers. It also necessitates the HR to develop new systems in place of the age old methods. Managements find it challenging to dole out rewards in the absence of a bird’s eye view of the performance management data.

The way companies do business is changing. The face of business is also changing and so is the way people are hired, the way they work and progress in careers. Performance Reviews had to change to match the changes. It is indeed welcome to see that hundreds of companies are doing away with the traditional ways and adopting newer styles that suit the new generation of enthusiastic and talented workforce.

Do you have any anecdotes about your Performance Reviews? What do you feel about the changes in this system? Do share with us so that we know how it has been useful.

How have your experiences been with your performance reviews? What would you change to make these reviews better for both the parties? Comment below and share your thoughts.

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