Friday, November 6, 2009

To Review or not to Review

I love hearing opinions about performance reviews. It's usually complaints that the review process is not meaningful, it doesn't reflect performance, and is even damaging. Start-ups often decide to dismiss annual reviews altogether. 'Performance reviews are old school and lame, instead we just give regular feedback,' I can hear them say.

This New York Times interview with Yahoo's chief executive Carol Bartz, titled 'Imagining a World of No Annual Reviews" enforces this mindset - and reminded me that I love listening to this debate.

Carol says:
When the puppy pees on the carpet, you say something right then because you don’t say six months later, “Remember that day, January 12th, when you peed on the carpet? If I had my way I wouldn’t do annual reviews, if I felt that everybody would be more honest about positive and negative feedback along the way. I think the annual review process is so antiquated.

Wait a minute Carol - you are the chief executive, why don't you have your way? The main reason you don't is that managers do not give regular feedback. They probably give more feedback to their dog than to their staff. They do not have meaningful conversations with employees to learn work challenges, areas they are interested, frustration points, nor to discuss good and bad performance areas. Now I know there are some superb managers, but generally the feedback just doesn't happen, managers aren't trained well, or they don't care. Actually, its these same things (magnified) as to why they hate annual reviews. Managers don't want to give real thought to giving constructive feedback or deal with what they perceive as an awkward interaction.

You know... if meaningful feedback actually did happen regularly, an 'official review' wouldn't bother anyone, would it? It would be a normal meeting for them. It wouldn't be awkward, there would be no surprises. It wouldn't be a big deal.

Don't get me wrong. I fundamentally agree with Carol. But since we don't give regular feedback and employees want it, we need to do something else. What? You want me to repeat that? Yes, employees actually want feedback, and even ask for it. People want to think they spend all their time doing something valuable - they actually do want legitimate praise and to hear/discuss real ways to improve.

So here's what I believe: If you are a start-up with a strong review system, stay with it. If you do nothing, then you need to start with at least one 'formal' review (at the end of the year) and preferably another one mid-year. This review doesn't have to have 1-5 scales, objectives set at beginning of the year, or any other traditional or formal elements. It should just be a time that forces everyone to get some feedback, to collect employee's wants and issues, to discuss position or department or company performance and goals, and maybe to discuss pay increases? I like starting with requesting employees to write up their accomplishments, challenges, what they want to work on short/long term, and what they have/have not enjoyed about their position or project. Employees give their one-page write up to their lead, who reflects, adds real stuff to it, and sits down to discuss. It's a start. Maybe an annual process that is used, and thoughtfully considered, will help create a real regular feedback environment?

What do you do? Does it work? Do you hate reviews? Do you get helpful feedback throughout the year?


  1. My favorite book on management is "High Output Management" by Andy Grove, former Intel Chairmain/CEO. Now, he's a very process-oriented guy and comes from a company that is very manufacturing-centric, but his focus is on PRODUCTION. Everyone has a measurable impact on the business, even specialists who have no direct reports and don't actually "produce" anything (like sales, code, or a marketing report). I think the trick is getting people to understand how they impact the business, and focus on those things.

    THAT'S what performance reviews are so great for and I think it's even MORE important in a startup, where every person's effort is so critical. I was involved with a startup where we had only 4 people, and I set up a structure where we were doing performance reviews MONTHLY, and "update" meetings weekly.

    Sure, constant feedback is great, but even if that is done PERFECTLY, formal reviews give managers as chance to help their reports strategize and also gives a chance to TEACH. When you come to a performance review, or any "official" meeting like that, everyone knows what's going to happen. You have a deliberate dialog and everyone is made to prepare appropriately. In any business, and especially a fast-moving startup, if you don't implement that structure, there's the chance that things can start to slip. Why not take the time to make sure?

    I think the real problem is that people are scared of negative reviews because then they might have to step it up a notch.

  2. I believe the two things are comaptible. There should be regular feedback, but then there should be the "review" of the feedback given to date and a chance for the reviewing manager to receive feedback themselves.

    I've worked in good and bad organisations for this, but when it is done well I believe it provides employees with the clarity and direction they need. After all we all need to know where we are going, why we are going there and how we are doing on the journey. Don't we?

  3. Thanks Ed and HRD for the comments. HRD, I couldn't agree more! Reviews and feedback are compatible and necessary. I'm still of the opinion that more often than not both are done poorly. Ed, I'm going to check out Andy Grove's book. It's Also great to hear your thoughts and past experiences. I'm looking forward to seeing you next week.