Why I still care about annual reviews

Call them what you will … Mix the words annual, performance, and review together in any combination and you end up with a phrase that can spark up a heated debate even among long time colleagues and friends. Some people love em, others swear that they’re completely useless and don’t provide any value. I sit on the positive side of the fence on this one and I’d like to take a minute (just sit right there) I’ll tell you about the performance review process and why I care…

But seriously, what’s up with the fear and angst surrounding annual reviews? Why all the hate? Should we split hairs about what we call them? Is performance even really measurable for most of us? Well you know what team… those are some damn good questions. Let’s take a few and examine some of the problems and some solutions too (because you know damn well we don’t talk about problems without at least bouncing around some solutions).

Let me be perfectly clear when I say the group of people I work with on a daily basis are A-MA-ZING. They really are. Collectively, there are still quite a few different views on this topic.

Differences of opinion are everywhere when it comes to annual reviews

I learn more from this group of developers and tech architects than I ever could attending courses or scraping every bit of information from the corners of the internet. Every single one of them brings a unique perspective and every single one contributes hugely to not only the projects we’re engaged in but also the culture of our company that makes it hands down one of the best places to work. Period. In our group there are some (few) number of us who still buy in to the concept of an annual review and a vast majority who could take it or leave it.

Talk to any of the naysayers for a few minutes and you’ll find there are a few common themes that start to present themselves. Conveniently, and sadly, those themes are some of the same themes that present themselves in many of the articles you can find online (some of which are linked at the bottom of this blog post – you can go check em out and come back when you’re done if you’d like).

Read through all these articles we can distill a few pretty common themes:
1) Your boss(es) don’t know anything about what you actually did last year
2) Performance is measured on arbitrary metrics
3) Employees generally have a fear of telling the truth to “power” as well as their colleagues

Well no wonder everyone is upset about the review process. I’d hate it if that’s all my review was about, specifically if I felt that my performance was measured on arbitrary metrics. Blech. Arbitrary almost-anything is terrible. If this is the way people feel, that’s a pretty big deal if you ask me. People feel frustrated about these types of problems long enough and they start to leave, finding opportunities at other companies with different, albeit still flawed, review processes.

Even people who manage the review process are frustrated with the manner in which the reviews are performed. Don’t believe me? Check Article 4 (below). In that article specifically, Ria calls out the difference between managers and Leaders.

Wait … wait … wait wait wait … wait a minute.
I’m sorry, did we just read that managers are doing annual reviews?

THIS. This, ladies and gents, this is our A-HA moment.

I have zero faith in any review that is performed by what essentially amounts to a bystander reading off metrics, or words that they have no investment in ensuring are correct, and who has no real investment in me as an individual.

2

A performance review is valued when the person who is delivering it truly cares about the development, progress, and well being of their team member. This care only comes as a by-product of a relationship built on trust. A relationship that isn’t built by holding a once a year meeting to let their team member know how they they’ve performed since the last meeting. This is relationship where feedback and mentoring is continually being provided (or offered at the least) over the course of the year.

With this relationship in place, there are no surprises when the annual review is held because any shortcomings were already discussed and achievements were applauded. This annual review is simply summarizing all the (worthwhile) feedback over the course of the year and really focusing on the future development of the team member. This is a meeting where the team member has the full attention of their Manager and there are no other distractions.  Enough time has been set aside, both during the meeting as well as in advance, that the team member feels valued and appreciated.

This annual review is not an introduction of issues, but truly a summary. The purpose, then, is to focus on future development and reinforce the relationship already built throughout the year. With a proper summary being compiled in a thoughtful manner (and far enough in advance… and comprised of properly written feedback) it allows adequate focus to be placed on the successes of the individual and provide enough support for them to feel secure in receiving the areas for growth without going on the defensive. The entire atmosphere of this type of annual review needs to revolve around a central idea of trust and how to :

  • Plan for next year’s growth through thoughtful and deliberate conversation (invest in growth)
  • Discover new ways to connect and grow – build more trust through meaningful discussion of goals / ambitions
  • Reinforce the relationship already established – by acknowledging and celebrating their successes this year (it is a “review” after all)

3

This process can then be summed by the following 6 words (the power-6):

Plan & Invest
Discover & Build
Acknowledge & Reinforce

This approach might not be enough to sway some serious hold outs, but I’ve seen and been involved with these exact types of reviews for years and I’m consistently on the receiving end of some pretty amazing feedback regarding the results. The hard-and-fast truth is that we should all be recognized when and where the good things are happening and when and where our areas for growth are showing themselves. However, consider removing the commercialism from holidays like Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day and you’re left with expressing genuine interest and appreciation for someone who (should) mean a lot to you.

There’s no difference here (in the annual review process), and personally, I really do appreciate when someone I value, respect, and trust has taken the time to Acknowledge my strengths, Discover what’s making me tick (lately), and helps to Plan or suggest some of my stretch goals for next year. The key point here is that I already value and trust their opinion and want to improve (or demonstrate my improvement) to them as a bit of an homage to the investment they’ve made in me over the years (kind of similar to parenting when you think about it … )

To me, it’s the sign of true leadership and the output of a successful mentor program put into practice.

A few performance review articles (for reference sake)
Article 1
Article 2
Article 3
Article 4