So recently Adobe decided to eliminate their employee performance review. There are probably a lot of reasons why they made this decision, but the biggest is undoubtedly because their employees hated the performance review. They hated it for the same reason all employees hate performance reviews, which is as follows:
What You Say (As An Employer):
“We’re going to conduct periodic performance reviews. These will be designed to assess your strengths and point out areas of potential growth.”
What Your Employees Hear:
“Every few months we’re going to get together so that I can highlight your shortcomings and tell you everything that you’re doing wrong.”
Is that a fair way for people to look at performance reviews? Not exactly. But it’s how we all think.
Take my wife, for example. (Just a figure of speech, by the way – I don’t want you to literally take her. She’s nice.) She works for a large company that does an annual performance review. Everyone is graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being ‘you’re awesome!’ and 1 being the opposite of that. The rankings are distributed along a standard bell curve, so most people get 3’s, a smaller number get 2’s and 4’s, and a tiny number get 1’s and 5’s. In theory, a 3 indicates that you are doing exactly what is expected of you and should be quite pleased with that.
But in practice, that’s not how it works at all, because – surprise coming! – nobody in history has ever been thrilled to be called ‘average.’ When we were children, none of us said, “When I grow up, I want to be a middle-of-the-road performer.” And so people at my wife’s company obsess about their ranking and are generally angry when they’re not given a 5, even though it would be a useless performance review that told everyone that they were amazing and couldn’t possibly do anything better. (Note to Harvard: your ridiculous percentage of ‘A’ grades is doing your students a crippling disservice.) Apparently the angriest people are those who receive 4’s but thought they were going to get a 5. Not to mention that a person’s annual grade doesn’t have much correlation to their career trajectory. Plenty of her company’s senior executives got to their positions without getting 5’s every year, and that tends to be true of most companies. But try telling that to someone who just got a 3 and has to wait an entire year to see if maybe they can rid themselves of their horrible averageness.
Moreover, the annual (or semi-annual or quarterly) review gives the impression that those few moments are the only times during the year that our bosses are actively observing us. That isn’t true, either, but it’s an easy mistake to make. “All right, time for the performance reviews” sounds a lot like, “All right, I’m officially paying attention now.” In that sense it’s a lot like an evil version of Christmas. I mean, was Santa really paying attention to our behavior before Thanksgiving?
Taken together, the annual performance review has a tendency to promise a lot of frustration without offering much upside. Anything short of a great ranking is synonymous with failure, and the very fact that performance reviews need to be scheduled suggests that performance is not being reviewed at any other time. A far smarter approach would be to review performance continuously throughout the year – which all of us are doing anyway, by the way. Couple that with the ability to provide on-the-spot bonuses or impromptu recognition, and you might end up with a workforce that knows it’s being noticed all the time.
Of course, that’s going to irritate the 1’s and 2’s, but how much do you really want to cater to them?—
Note: Special thanks to Diane at WEA Benefits for sending me the Adobe article and asking me to write something about performance reviews! Great idea!