Should We Abolish Performance Reviews?

In four weeks from today, I’ll be enjoying the company of thousands of organizational psychologists at this year’s annual conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) in Anaheim, Calif. This is a fun-loving crowd. It’s probably also one of the few crowds in which you’ll find passionate debates about topics such as psychometrics, leadership assessments or classical test theory.

At last year’s conference, in fact, a structured debate took place on the topic of performance appraisals. Yes, you read that correctly.  

You might know of performance appraisals as performance reviews. Many managers think of them as administrative burdens accompanied by awkward conversations.

The debate I attended was standing-room only.

Being a little bit taller than average (I’m 6’1”), I stood in the back and watched over the heads of bright-eyed graduate students and opinionated professionals alike as a handful of the field’s most well-respected people argued their sides of the story. I’m over-generalizing, but the extreme sides of the arguments regarding performance reviews were:

  • Abolish them! Managers hate them. Employees hate them. They do nothing to promote job performance. And they might even make performance worse. Focus instead on coaching and real-time continual feedback.
  • Keep them! When they’re well-designed and executed, performance appraisals help employees know where they stand. And they’re essential for documenting both good and not-so-good performance, which is most-welcomed evidence to have on hand in the human resources department for legal reasons.

Both sides of this argument tended to agree that research suggests that it’s essential to have high-quality, feedback-rich conversations between employees and their supervisors. And maybe it’s a copout, but I tend to think that an organization can have both—a formal appraisal system and a productive coaching environment. That happens to be the position that organizational psychologist Gary Latham takes in his book, Becoming the Evidence-Based Manager (I highly recommend it).

One of the most beneficial outcomes of a productive coaching and developmental relationship between a supervisor and an employee is that it can enhance the employee’s perception that the performance review process is fair. If you’ve ever dealt with people who thought they were performing well until their annual performance review meeting, you know what I mean.

At the same time, I’m left wondering about two distinct situations:

  1. In some organizations, completing the administrative performance review process has become the end itself—not a means for improving performance. The pieces of paper and process are well-designed, but they rarely coincide with high-quality coaching or development. They also take an inordinate amount of time to complete. I’m thinking of a real organization—the U.S. Navy—and it’s one in which I’ve written, edited or otherwise touched hundreds of such evaluations during the past 14 years. How could this type of organization start to revitalize its approach toward performance appraisal and developmental coaching?
  2. In other organizations, no formal performance appraisal or feedback system is in place. In such a circumstance, what might be the ideal way to both document performance and help employees truly flourish in their roles? Or should nothing be done?

Regardless of the “right” answer, the area of performance appraisal seems to be a distinct opportunity for leaders in human resources and beyond to make an impact. Because if we’re going to have organizations that meet the challenges of today’s turbulent world, we’re going to need to be creative in how we address the delicate, fascinating topic of human performance—what it looks like and how to support it in the right way.

I’m certainly just one of many who are thinking about this, and opinions abound (see articles in ForbesThe Washington Post and the BBC).

But what do you think?  

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. More at www.benbaran.com and www.agilityconsulting.com.