Is it Time to Ditch the Annual Performance Review?

In a recent coaching session, the manager I was meeting with shared that she was procrastinating facilitating her staff’s annual performance reviews. She explained how she tends to put off giving them until the very last minute. As a result, she scrambles to prepare, spends a few sleepless nights worrying about how they’ll go, and then “powers through” all of them in one jam-packed day. She concluded her assessment of performance reviews saying that she didn’t really know what the point of them was other than to waste time and put everyone on her team, including herself, on edge.

It’s no secret that employees also dislike performance reviews. Almost everyone I’ve talked to remembers a performance review that had a negative impact on them, causing a range of adverse emotions from anger and frustration to anxiety and sadness. This typically happens when managers use the review as an opportunity to run through a list of all the things a person has done wrong in the past year.

Providing ongoing connection through regular conversations in the context of our work is the best tool to promote performance.

Why Performance Reviews Don’t Work

It’s not difficult to see why this type of stand-alone yearly assessment is a problem. The focus on the past causes defensiveness and does little to set the stage for positive performance in the future. This kind of review is counterproductive because the behavior has already occurred, and the person is only hearing that they have done something problematic well after the fact. In a summary of the research on performance reviews, The Washington Post found that when constructive criticism is given, even employees who are keen to grow in their role are significantly bothered when they receive negative feedback.

At ACHIEVE, we believe that providing ongoing connection through regular conversations in the context of our work is the best tool to promote performance, not an annual performance review. We also believe that the objective of performance management is to align the actions of the employee with the goals of the organization. This means we focus on performance enhancement and growth, not performance reviews. We have found that having regular check-ins, allowing staff to set their own goals, and focusing on building capacity are effective ways to manage performance. Each of these ideas will provide you with ways to enhance performance without facilitating the traditional performance review.

The objective of performance management is to align the actions of the employee with the goals of the organization.

1. Schedule Frequent Check-ins

Regular check-ins are a great way to increase engagement, workplace satisfaction, and performance. It has been my experience that people feel valued and affirmed when we pay attention to them, give them our time, and offer our support – and this should be the primary focus of our check-ins. These conversations should happen regularly and be a time where we ask what the person’s priorities are, and what they need from us to be successful. Our role in managing performance should be to support staff, and then keep them accountable to reach their goals. When a person is engaging in behaviors that are not contributing to their success or to their team’s productivity, they may need to hear from us about what isn’t working and what needs to change. We can do this by presenting the impact of their actions, sharing our perspective on the situation, and asking what they believe needs to be done differently going forward.

When we share how someone’s actions have impacted us or others, it creates opportunities for them to gain insight into what’s working and what isn’t. Frequent check-ins allow for timely conversations about issues that matter, and the result is that the person knows what to work on so they can improve their performance.

2. Invite Staff to Set Goals and Monitor Their Progress

One of the ways we can support our staff in being accountable for their own performance is to formally invite them to give us updates on what they are doing, where they are at with particular tasks and recent successes, or what they are struggling with. This is called self-reporting and it informs us of the staff’s contribution to organizational goals that we might not have been aware of otherwise. It reinforces the fact that their contribution is of value and that their voice is important. When staff share their progress with us, we should be attentive, acknowledge their growth, and validate their efforts. This type of self-monitoring has the added benefit of making staff more conscious of how they are contributing.

At ACHIEVE, we also take time to listen to our employee’s goals for the future in an annual goal-setting meeting. This conversation follows an agenda that includes reflection questions about how their work is going and what their objectives are for the coming year. Once priorities are outlined, we have a conversation and ask them to identify their best course of action. This is important because we know that people learn and perform best when they take personal responsibility for their actions. In addition to the practice of providing ongoing feedback, our goal-setting meeting has replaced traditional performance reviews.

3. Focus On Building Capacity

Helping someone get better at their job is a large part of a leader’s role. To build capacity in our employees, we need to inspire and motivate them to be active participants in their own development. We can do this by identifying and affirming the strengths of our employees.

Years ago, we hired a person for a client services role, but it quickly became apparent that she had skill in graphic design. With time and opportunity, she continued to build her skills and significantly contributed to our organization in this regard. Opportunities like this are why we need to be attentive and build on the strengths our employees bring to the table. Rather than investing too much time in trying to fix skill deficits, choose to put energy, resources, and time into helping people discover and capitalize on their unique strengths and contributions.

Performance management should always be about growth and development, and this cannot occur in an annual or even intermittent performance review.

Performance management should always be about growth and development, and this cannot occur in an annual or even intermittent performance review that focuses only on problem areas. Rather, we need to make an ongoing commitment to improving performance by using strategies like the ones listed above. Though these strategies take time and effort to implement, they provide multiple perspectives on performance and a more well-rounded picture of how the employee is doing than a traditional review. This is because they highlight areas for improvement and provide ongoing opportunities for development based on strengths. Organizations that focus on finding ways to support their staff to grow and develop will have better results – and this should be the goal of any performance management plan.

For more FREE resources, visit our resources page. 


Wendy Loewen

Managing Director , ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

Wendy is co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. This book is available on our website.

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