This and last week were those of annual reviews.  Most organizations do these kinds of things in order to review a person’s performance.  It’s one of those things that has been done for a long time and correspondingly will continue to be done for a long time.

Large organizations do them for a few reasons, the main being a fail safe for having to fire people.  This is absolutely necessary from a legal perspective, however firing people shouldn’t be done annually, it should be done as necessary when someone isn’t doing a good job.  Often the annual review provides a time to set a limitation on the poor behavior and then axe the miscreant in question at a (sooner) later date.  Good stuff!  In all seriousness, this is actually a good part of annual reviews, there are poor performers out there, and it probably isn’t the right role for them.

Other things happen in larger organizations–raises, promotions, new opportunities.  Lots of good things there.  Again, these are not necessarily activities that should happen annually but there is a tendency for that time frame to work.  People doing well should be rewarded to continue their positive output for an organization.

Smaller organizations, from what I can tell, do these annualized reviews because they seem like a good thing to be doing.  The big guys do.  People need to get some feedback on what they’re doing, so why not an annual review?  At first glance this makes sense but there are a lot of reasons to aim higher.

One of the big issues with annual reviews is the time gap between performance appraisals.  One year in business time is a HUGE parcel on the space time continuum.  SO MUCH changes in that time that it’s difficult to recall if you’ve done well against stated objectives (which hopefully the organization has) or if the scope/expectation changed so much that it seems like the performer didn’t live up to what was agreed upon.  Often this is not an issue, due to the general knowledge within the group in question, e.g. the boss was the boss same time last year and realizes what’s going on.

But many times, that’s not the case.  Misalignment between previous goals and what’s actually important now reflects poorly, or indifferently, on a person’s output.  This happens for all kinds of reasons:  a new general manager dictates a different direction, a competitor launches something that alters a market enough that the organization must realign resources, a key team member leaves, etc.  The only thing that stays the same is change, and it’s reflected in annual reviews.

Solving the time frame thing is relatively easy.  Start doing smaller increments (semi annual seems about right.)

Solving human nature is nigh impossible.

Great managers understand that their job is to motivate and get the absolute best out of employees.  Their best.  That’s an important idea here, because what actually is their best may well deviate significantly from what the manager considers their best, if they subscribe to this ideology.

Humans are flawed in many ways.  Perspectives on someone’s ability or ceiling or best work is subjective.  And although we mean the best, as managers, we have a tendency to try to “fix” the things we see in others.  Often these perceived areas for fixing are simple differences in the way we do things.  It is in this way that organizations largely become mirror entities of the people that run them, as they continually project their work values to their direct reports, which cycle downward.  This is not inherently bad, there’s a good reason so many large organizations benefit from leadership that does this.  Yet it is intrinsically biased and many managers may miss the boat on valuable skill sets that aren’t in line with their own work style.

Good managers realize their biases and attempt to work around them using tools like 360 feedback and personality testing, but these also miss the mark for many people.  360 feedback can often have rose colored glasses as people seek to stay away from tough conversations for fear of repercussion.  Personality tests, though scientifically viable depending on the tool, do not necessarily provide strategies to improve work flow so much as state a person’s tendencies.

The bottom line is that reviews as a whole are tough.  Promotions and the like are easy, but tough conversations are not.  Having those conversations in a perennial, stress inducing, work load heavy format is much worse.  This goes without stating the fact that they are a lot of work, for managers with a great deal of direct reports, it is very cumbersome.  And, dirty little secret, most managers make the direct report write it up anyway, then edit it as they see fit.

So at the end of the day we’re left with a bloated process that tends to focus on the negative, takes a great deal of time and effort and is not uncommonly missing information due to dated expectations.  It may well be better than nothing, but there is undoubtedly a better way to approach assessment at work.