One of the most detested activities in corporate America is the annual performance review. Managers loathe telling their direct reports where they fall short, while practically everyone on the receiving end hates being judged and evaluated - often by someone who hasn't a clue as to how the employee actually is performing.
Companies have spent millions of dollars to improve the review process. But whether reviews are handled the old-fashioned way - with the "doesn't meet expectations/meets expectations/exceeds expectations" grid - or in some new 360-degree fashion where the reviewed reviews the reviewer, most people still believe the process is as enjoyable as going to the dentist, with far fewer positive results. Sure, companies need performance reviews, most of us would grudgingly concede, but can't they be handled better?
No they can't, say Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins, who believe that performance appraisals are intrinsically flawed and do not and cannot work.
"It's time to start over and look for new ways to liberate the human spirit in organizational life," say the two, authors of an industry standard, "Abolishing Performance Appraisals: Why They Backfire and What to Do Instead" (Berrett Koehler, 2000). Coens, a labor lawyer, and Jenkins, formerly a human resources executive at General Motors and now a consultant, believe that performance appraisals - more than any other aspect of the management process in corporations - surreptitiously send a number of resounding, negative messages about the nature and potential of people. They show that a company distrusts its employees and that people need to be prodded and psyched up in order to generate their best effort.
"The assumption that we can even rank or precisely measure a person's contribution is degrading in a sense," they say. "In blindly accepting this assumption, we trivialize an individual's work, often involving heart and soul, from something unique and wonderful into a cold and sterile numerical rating that purportedly signifies that person's total contribution."
OK, so we agree performance reviews are a waste of time. What should we do instead?
Coens and Jenkins know readers will jump to that question, because it's easier to seek a uniform quick fix than to come up with solutions that will vary from company to company and change over time. First, they say, top management must buy into the idea that performance reviews have to go. That's not so easy, since most organizations are reluctant to change (even when they secretly recognize that the current process makes no sense). But if some top leaders get it, the next step is to analyze what, specifically, the company wants the performance review to accomplish, and then create new tools that replace those functions.
For example, if a performance review is supposed to provide feedback, companies could encourage and provide training so that feedback is made part of the daily routine of the organization. If legal documentation is the need, companies could train managers to document unacceptable performance in different ways.
It's clear Coens and Jenkins aren't grown up love children looking to transform companies into touchy-feely Edens. They simply are saying what most of us viscerally know: the performance review emperor is naked. Let's work on something better.
(C) Copyright 2002 Evan Cooper. Syndicated by Paradigm News, Inc.