How to Help Leaders Fall in Love with Performance Reviews

By Heather Campbell

In my last blog post I promised to share some findings from our research into how HR can make Annual Performance Reviews something that people really want to engage with.

And I also promised I’d tell you about a webinar where you can find out more.

The details of the webinar are at the end of this post, but let’s talk about the research findings first.

Since the start of the year, we’ve been talking to leaders, to HR teams and to people on the receiving end of the APR process to find out what really works. We’ve uncovered seven simple actions that are worth your consideration. Here they are:

1. Keep a simple framework. Avoid adding more complexity to the system in an effort to ‘get leaders to understand’ – setting out more rules or guidelines will turn them off even more. Equally, however, removing the framework completely will work against success – too much choice is as debilitating as too little.

2. Within a framework, give leaders options – follow Adobe’s example and let your leaders choose the right time for more formal conversations. Spreading these throughout the year is likely to be preferable to a marathon of interactions crammed into a few weeks at ‘Annual Review time’. Give more flexibility in how leaders allocate performance rewards rather than enforcing a ‘bell curve’ – if they want to rate everyone as Top 10 and spread the available funds more widely, why stop them?

3. Reinforce to leaders that managing performance well isn’t about having more conversations – that just adds to their overcrowded schedules. Instead, help them to use the conversations they are already having more effectively. Most leaders waste lots of time in ineffective conversations with the people they lead – there’s lots of scope for improvement here.

4. Don’t have ‘percentage of completed APRs’ as part of the HR team’s objectives. Achieving this turns the whole thing into an HR problem and lets managers off the hook. It leads to the unedifying chasing game where HR hounds managers to send in their completed documents. Instead, make sure this appears on the leaders’ objectives – and their performance is reviewed against it – and they’ll quickly give more priority to reviewing performance.

5. Review the number of people leaders have reporting to them. Reviewing performance in a meaningful way for six or eight people is reasonable. But doing so with a team of 20 plus, maybe even dispersed around the globe, isn’t. Not an easy balancing act when budgets are limited, but increasing team size and achieving effective performance management are inversely related.

6. Think about the language used in performance reviews. ‘Performance’, ‘objectives’, ‘personal development’ – this doesn’t capture leaders’ attention because it isn’t their language. Leaders talk about ‘getting people to take accountability’, ‘hitting deadlines’, ‘being under-resourced’. As HR professionals, we know that good performance management can help make things easier in all these areas. When language around reviewing people’s performance focuses on solving these problems, not surprisingly leaders are far more likely to pay attention.

7. Make sure your leaders are skilled in having the whole range of performance conversations they need to have with their teams. If they’re confident they can handle everything – from ‘well done’ feedback to the tough ones about underperformance – with authenticity, they’re far more likely to have these conversations in the first place. Even the most experienced leaders are surprisingly adept at giving tough conversations about performance a wide berth because they aren’t that sure they can handle them well.

And there’s a growing trend that I’d recommend you approach with caution – an increasing number of HR teams are looking at using apps that give leaders a short-cut to engage with their teams around performance.

Understandably, they’re seeking quick and easy ways to get leaders to engage in areas like giving feedback and acknowledging work well done.

And with apps for just about everything nowadays, why not one to replace performance reviews too?

But how far do we go? A smiley emoji to say ‘well done’? A teary one to give feedback when things haven’t gone so well?

Maybe not quite that far.

But I’d raise a warning here. Years of overhauling the performance review system hasn’t resulted in leaders engaging wholeheartedly in it. And apps won’t either.

One thing that came through loud and clear from our research – good performance management isn’t about the process, it’s about the interaction between the leader and the people they lead. It’s about the conversation.

Get the conversation right and neither the app nor the system is that important.

If you’d like to dive a bit deeper into the research and discover the simple framework we’ve found will help make leaders’ lives easier (and finally get them to have effective performance conversations into the bargain) then check out this webinar.

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