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Should you do performance reviews?

Based on input from 1,000+ managers in our online leadership community in Know Your Team, here’s what to consider if you’re thinking about doing performance reviews.

Performance review notebook

“Should I do performance reviews?” A manager recently wrote this to me. We’d arrived in the middle of the year (already?!), and he was curious if he should kick-off bi-yearly performance reviews with his team.

Performance reviews are a peculiar relic of our work lives. It’s this thing we believe the big, serious companies seem to do. A thing we’ve been told is a standard management practice. But perhaps you’ve gotten word from colleagues or friends at other companies that performance reviews are less en vogue these days, and markedly less effective. And perhaps – as this manager was who was writing to me – you feel that if you decided not to do them, you’re a little stuck about what to do instead.

So you ask yourself the same question this manager did: Should you do performance reviews? If so, what are the best practices? And if not, what should you do instead?

In order to answer those questions, let’s first examine the purpose of a performance review, to begin with. Ultimately, these fixtures in organizations were created because we, as managers, are accountable for our team’s performance. Performance reviews are intended as a mechanism to help our team perform well.

We must keep this in mind. At the heart of things, the intention behind performance reviews are meaningful: To encourage performance positively, and to help ensure the outcome you both want for the team is achieved. If the goal behind performance reviews is anything other than that (e.g., because other companies do them), then, well, you should really stop wasting your time 🙂

That being said, the question becomes: How do you best encourage performance positively, and help ensure the outcome you both want for the team is achieved? Do performance reviews – or something else – best fulfill that function?

Considering this, I consulted our online leadership community in Know Your Team, The Watercooler, with 1,000+ managers from all over the world, to see how they answered those questions. Here’s what they said…

Do you do performance reviews at your company?

Most said, “Not really.” Why?

  • Annual performance reviews are cumbersome and lack agility.
  • No one dreads annual review time now, and feedback is more ‘in the flow’.
  • Less intensive, more regular check-ins create a framework that makes performance management more natural.
  • Here’s a book that explicitly discusses getting rid of the annual performance review.
  • Here’s our Guide to Rethinking Performance Reviews, based on research over the past 30 years.

What managers do instead:

  • Lightweight, meaningful check-ins twice a year, combined with regular one-on-one meetings.
  • Use every fourth one-on-one meeting as the time to talk about performance instead of the traditional performance review cycles. This is something Patty McCord, former VP of People at Netflix, recommended in a 2015 TED Talk.
  • Full annual review once a year, and also a lightweight check-in mid-year.
  • Lightweight check-in every 3-4 months. Performance goals, strengths, areas for improvement, and what the person should learn in upcoming months are discussed. This conversation is intentionally different from regular one-on-one meetings where we talk about day-to-day work, roadblocks, etc.
  • 4 months cadence of performance reviews where the output is 2 documents: (1) a document that both the manager and employee agree on that goes to HR, and (2) a personal goal page with SMART goals on internal blog where they can track their progress for the next 4 months.
  • Salary adjustments are completely separate from the performance review and are handled by HR (though performance certainly plays into this).

Tips for performance reviews:

  • Managers should act as coaches. The team works best when managers are viewed as coaches and more experienced peers to help employees with their career development.
  • Have a clear agenda. Oftentimes, employees don’t know that they can use these meetings to talk about things they need coaching on that relate to their career.
  • Don’t tie performance reviews to pay increases (or decreases) – have this be a separate conversation. Here’s a Harvard Business Review article that discusses this more in-depth.
  • Separate peer feedback from reviews. It’s important to make easier for peers to give feedback regularly. One Watercooler member does this in video form.
  • Ask specific questions to better understand where the person is at, uncover blind spots, etc. (This should take up about 70% of the time.)
  • High Output Management by Andy Grove has great tips on how to run good one-on-one meetings.
  • Bring up topics that would be hard to talk to in a bigger group.
  • Don’t wait for the meeting to give critical feedback.
  • Tools like Performance Feedback in Know Your Team can be massively helpful for creating the habit of ongoing feedback, rather than traditional, one-time annual reviews.
Put these tips into practice 💪
Use our performance review alternative.

Regardless of whether or not you end up doing performance reviews or some hybrid of what Know Your Team subscribers suggested here, I hope you keep in mind the original thrust behind performance reviews. The goal here is to positively encourage performance. You can read our full Guide to Rethinking Performance Reviews here.

How are you best doing that?

⚡️ Looking for something other than the “traditional performance review”? Check out Performance Feedback, our performance review alternative.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Canopy. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.