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I Hate Performance Reviews: Creating Cultures of Excellence

Posted: May 1, 2014 by Rob Voyle

I hate annual performance reviews, both giving and getting such reviews.

I am totally unappreciative about them.

Leadership is about creating a better future not about fixing past failures.

When I taught at the College of Executive Coaching I would conduct a brief one question survey of our students: "Have you experienced a performance review that left you inspired, motivated and equipped to do a better job in the future?" Consistently the answer was only 8% of the participants had experienced such a helpful performance review, yet virtually all thought they were important to do.

Edwards Deming said many years ago: "The worst thing in American business is the annual performance appraisal. It evokes fear and robs workers of the right to pride in their workmanship."

Unfortunately Deming couldn't get American industry to listen to him about the need for quality, dignity, and workplace without fear and the soul destroying process of annual performance appraisals continues, and now people want to bring them into the church! For those who don't know of Deming's work, when American industry rejected his ideas he went to Japan, and subsequently had a huge influence on rebuilding Japanese industry and above all the quality of Japanese products after world war two.

While I have no time for annual performance reviews I am deeply committed to creating cultures of excellence, and continual improvement. I want to do a better job in everything I do.

So how do we take stock of where we are and ask how can we do that better. At the beginning of this article I said: "Leadership is about creating a better future not about fixing past failures." We need to pay attention to what we are doing with staff and how that is impacting their future performance. Too often leaders focus on past performance unaware that what they are doing, often with the best of intentions, is degrading future performance.

Critique of the past, also known as feedback, whether criticism as in: "that was useless" or praise (as in: that was great) doesn't change future performance. Criticism just annoys and demotivates performance, while praise just makes people feel good but doesn't ensure they do good. What does change future behavior is getting the person to see themselves doing something better in the future.

So we could say: that was useless and next time I want you to do something useful. And then have a conversation about the specific useful thing you want done and include having the person visualize themselves doing the useful thing. Or we could say: that was great and next time I want you to continue to do that great thing.

There are several other things leaders need to pay attention to if they want to create a culture of excellence.

1. We need to create a learning culture, where the goal is to celebrate learning rather than punish failure. Its impossible to learn if we are not free to fail.

Sadly we live in an adversarial culture that focuses on blame and punishing bad behavior. I am not advocating ignoring bad behavior, what I am strongly advocating for is creating a culture where people can be learned and empowered to perform effectively.

2. People need to know the purpose of what they are asked to do. Without an ennobling vision many tasks becoming soul destroying and radically demotivating. Within an ennobling context, even the most menial of tasks, can be fulfilling and life-giving.

3. People need to have a clear job description or have specific goals that they have agreed to before any review can take place. As Edwards Deming also said: telling people to do their best is not very helpful if you don't tell them what it is that you want them to do their best at.

4. Review, reflection, and learning needs to be continual. An annual review is very poor psychology. People need to know immediately if they have done well, so they can continue. that behavior. Likewise people need to know immediately if their performance is ineffective, waiting months for a scheduled review is just plain wasteful.

In next week's newsletter I will explore some strategies for conducting a Mutual Ministry Review or Mutual Ministry Valuation as I prefer to call them within the context of a congregation.

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