Death of the Annual Performance Review?

As humans, we want at least two things from this performance conversation – a sense of why this matters and an understanding of what is expected of us.

Accenture CEO

Lucy Kellaway of the FT loves to stir things up. It’s ‘common sense’ to get rid of the ‘charade’ of annual appraisal as Accenture are apparently doing. ‘Performance Reviews will soon be over for all of us’ she trumpets. She goes on to criticise both Accenture and Deloitte for ‘An elementary misunderstanding of what it is to be human..’ having been ‘..charging fat fees in return for stuffing their clients with dreadful appraisal systems..’ Instead her advice is, ‘Hire only managers who ..are good at telling people how they are doing.. all the time..’

Well here’s the thing Lucy, ‘what it is to be human’ is a wonderful set of paradoxes. You are right that understanding it is at the heart of every successful enterprise, but if it was as obvious as you say it is, how come we don’t do it?

Maybe it’s essentially because we struggle with our needs for personal connection versus our needs to create outcomes and have them happen?

Most days we go to work to get things done - we like to focus on the task and get results. And if you’re a leader, you’re job is to get things done through others and that usually means dialogue. As a leader you need to clarify with your work colleague why, what, how and when things need to be done and if you have any sense you will also be listening for what’s coming back the other way, including suggestions for things to be done you didn’t think of!

By the way, as a human, your colleague wants at least two things from this conversation – a sense of why this matters to them and an understanding of what is expected of them. And as goal oriented beings, we humans learn from and like specific feedback. So we also want evaluation, from ourselves or from others, or both, as to how well we did.

But they also seek something less obvious - they like to connect with other people, at a level where they know they are cared for and where they care for you. It’s an emotion thing, we all want it, some of us a lot, some of us a little. It’s rarely ever declared out loud! It’s here the appraisal systems all break down because this is a little tricky to instruct in… I suppose it’s certainly ‘emotional intelligent’ to be able to connect personally with others, but its quite a specific thing and usually overlooked.

So here’s the thing. In this one conversation I am having with you about ‘getting something done’, if I am doing it well, I am explaining why, what, how and when; I am ensuring you know why it matters and what’s expected; letting you know that you will get feedback, and throughout, I am making a personal connection with you. Easy?

That’s how it turns out we need different kinds of conversation at different times:

* As a leader I need to connect with you – about what’s important to me, what’s important to you as a human being. We need an open, honest conversation that builds trust

* As a leader it makes sense to give time to explaining how your individual contribution fits into the collective aspiration of our enterprise – the big ‘why we are doing this and why you matter to it’

* As a leader I need to let you know what’s expected of you and give you feedback on how you did. And if I want to connect, ask you for feedback on how I did.

* We both want to have a sufficient shared understanding that when I say ‘this needs doing’ you get it right away and can get on with it, happily and positively. We both like getting stuff done to get results!

If these conversations are going on at every level in the organisation and if they are aligned, we have performance management, without any system or paper. And it would be that simple (not easy but definitely simple!) but for:

* We need to align and for that we need consistent language. Alignment through consistent language is the job of the top team to create and infuse into every level of the organisation. It’s a whole other article, but for here, it doesn’t need a system

* Since ultimately business results are how we get paid, we feel a need to link these performance management conversations with money and that leads to the desire to check for consistency and fairness. This is often why we end up with a performance management ‘system’ and the track record is that most organisations don’t think they work well.

But you know what? What’s at the heart of the problem is the conversations, not the system because:

* We’re prone to prioritise ‘getting things done’ over ‘making a connection’ every time

* We avoid giving negative feedback because we want to be liked

* We forget to give positive feedback because we’re focused on ‘getting things done’

* We’ve forgotten ourselves what’s important and why it’s important

We want to look good more than we want to make a connection and because we’re in charge, we’re afraid we don’t look good enough

I agree with Lucy that ‘what it is to be human’ is most important and needs to be worked with, including our foibles and failings. But these managers you hire Lucy, they too are human, with the same foibles and failings and ability to screw up. They need help with the right conversations, handled right, practised and honed for the context in which they are working. Then they will probably make the system work anyway!

I suppose it’s certainly ‘emotional intelligent’ to be able to connect personally with others, but its quite a specific thing and usually overlooked.