Benjamin Reid: Performance reviews need to be open and honest

Performance reviews have a long and storied history, but, put bluntly, largely as something which is done to employees rather than something which motivates and inspires them.

For Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Scientific Management Approach in 1911, performance review was something managers did between themselves to establish what tasks workers should do.

Even by 1957, Douglas MacGregor (he of Theory X and Y fame) was finding himself ‘uneasy’ at the way in which performance appraisal puts managers in the position of ‘playing God,’ in their judgments on employees. And today, although surveys continue to indicate that up to 98% of employees find performance reviews unnecessary, one Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey found that 90% or more of managers, let alone employees, approach performance reviews with a sense of dread.  

But it does not have to be like this. At their heart formal performance reviews should be an honest and open conversation between colleagues. That they generally are not is largely because the are often the only occasion managers discuss performance with employees. And because they are often linked to reward and promotion, they are more like a job interview (or worse, a hatchet job) than a useful reflection on individual or collective performance.  

Formal performance reviews will only work when  they are a single reward-linked occasion among many hundreds of regular informal  honest conversations about performance, and ones which favour the employee’s voice rather than the manager’s. Reviewing performance should be embedded in all team practice: indeed decades of research on teams by Professor Mike West finds ‘regular opportunities to collectively review team performance’ one of the defining practices of high-performing teams.

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And one of the key characteristics of outstanding leaders from the Work Foundation’s recent major project is that they excel at giving time and space to others. A culture of regular honest and open reflections on performance is what is needed to drive engagement, and what will make formal performance reviews rewarding for the individual and the organisation.  

Benjamin Reid is a senior researcher at the Work Foundation