What’s really wrong with performance reviews

I’m sure many of you have seen the recent column by Jeff Pfeffer in BusinessWeek.  It’s a very nice analysis of the flaws in corporate performance reviews.  I respect and agree with everything he says in that article. And, I think there’s a more fundamental issue underlying the failure of performance reviews.  The whole concept is backwards.

Photo by Charlie//Alexandra White on Flickr

Photo by Charlie//Alexandra White on Flickr

It’s designed to manage performance as if it could actually be managed.  In order to actually manage performance, a manager would have to be present while the employee works a great deal of the time.  When a person starts to veer off “best practices,” the manager could then intervene with helpful comments and suggestions, or in extreme cases simply whack the person with a ruler to keep him in line.

Sounds crazy doesn’t it?  Managers can’t do that, they’ve got better managerial things to do.  Performance reviews are designed as if people were machines that need annual maintenance to fix broken parts or an upgrade to new software.

In a human-centered model, we’d assume that an adult worker of normal abilities would be able to understand the task at hand, and apply skill and judgment to meet work goals.  In this system, we’d assume that the person would be motivated to do a good job and be curious about how to do it better.  This might be a stretch too, but given the choices, I think this approach has more potential.

Yes, it’s a major shift in paradigm, but it’s one that aligns with the people who are already doing well, not with the people who are not.  That is, people who are successful at work and in life tend to ask questions, learn, and grow. Why don’t we design processes, tools, and practices that support the more successful people, not prop up the weakest links?  Call me Darwin if you will, but I believe this approach will help those who aren’t behaving in the most successful strategies shift towards them (not get left behind).

For a great example of this approach (helping successful people do what they already do better) is Rypple.  It’s a platform for asking questions and giving feedback that’s driven by the only person who really cares about your performance… you.