Lisa Haneberg is taking aim at performance appraisals this week. I’m all for figuring out other ways to accomplish this, but I also understand that there can also be a lot of pushback. Here’s what I know: employees need to know how they’re doing and the “business” needs to be assured that risk is minimized. In an old-school, top-down, command-and-control culture, performance appraisals are the answer. Seems like a lot of folks agree with Lisa that appraisals are no fun and, in the wrong hands, can do more harm than good. I think the opposite is equally true–a lack of appraisals in the wrong hands can do more harm than good.
Personally, I don’t really mind performance reviews. I like getting them because it’s an opportunity to calibrate my bearings with my boss’s expectations. And while I can’t say I like giving reviews, I actually don’t mind it for the same reason I don’t mind getting them. I just figure everyone likes to know where they’re at. Of course, neither do I save stuff up all year long and unload on people at review time. By the time reviews roll around, there ought to be no surprises. The review itself is not much more than a marker in time–a place to take measurements from.
I think acceptable corporate cultures can flourish free of formal appraisals–this is Lisa’s ideal, I think. I also think that she’d agree that a lack of formal appraisals doesn’t mean an absence of effective feedback. Like I said earlier, people like to know how they’re doing. In an effective appraisal free culture, feedback is happening all the time and accountability is tacit rather than explicit. That’s a great place to be and we all should work there. But we don’t and we’re left to live in cultures that don’t just encourage appraisals, but often demand them. Lots of us work in places where our own appraisals are at risk when we don’t do appraisals of others. What then? How can the culture be circumvented? I don’t have the answer, and I haven’t seen anyone else have the answer either. Unless it’s “find another place to work” which isn’t always a very constructive or practical answer.
From my perspective, performance appraisals serve as a placeholder for two different tasks. These tasks are important to the nature of management and can’t easily be discarded, so if people ditch the formal appraisals, they’re still going to have to figure out a way to do the following:
- Documentation. Documentation of performance is neither fun nor easy to do. But it’s important for good management. Without documentation of performance, you’re relying entirely on memory and, for me at least, that’s pretty fallible. HR folks would say that documentation is important when faced with litigation, but I prefer to look on the bright side. Documentation is important to help people succeed, and not simply in a coercive way. Documentation is simply a tool for helping you remember what’s going right or going wrong. The presentation of that knowledge is where the rubber meets the road, which brings us to…
- Feedback. In some sad corporate cultures, the performance appraisal is the only time employees get any feedback on their performance, good or bad. In the absence of appraisals, managers have to be able to provide fair, consistent and timely feedback about how employees are doing. It’s not unlike driving a car–you can let go of the steering wheel for a short time and stay on the road, but if you let go for too long, you’ll start drifting.
TrueTalk blog points out that Fast Company has a cover article on HR this month. The article is both grim and accurate. No doubt HR has a a lot of work to do, but the entire weight of good management ought not sit on HR’s shoulders. HR ought to be a resource for good management, but since that’s difficult, what often happens is that HR becomes the “rules police.” I’m saying this as a former HR person, and a dissatisfaction with this role is pretty much why I’m not working in HR anymore. Most HR folks that I know don’t like the “rules police” perception, but they don’t know what else to do–there are rules, after all, and somebody has to enforce them. And so it goes.
The bottom line for me is that I’d be glad to not do formal appraisals, but I don’t know how to not do them when that’s part of the job I signed up to perform. If someone can help me figure that out, I’ll get on board the anti performance review train.