Annual Performance Reviews can hide weak management

Annual performance reviews can hide weak management. The annual performance review, as conducted by many companies – just once a year, tends to offer little in the way of performance improvements. They cost a fair old wedge of money to conduct too but more importantly, they can hide weak management.

Effective managers deal with underperformance professionally, with care and with urgency. Underperforming employees receive feedback and their manager talks to them about performance – a lot. Good managers do this with high performers too.

Effective managers don’t wait for a performance review to deal with an underperforming employee, or behaviour that is not conducive to building a great culture. They deal with it immediately.

Everyone needs this to happen. The employee themselves needs it to happen. They may not even be aware that they are underperforming. Has anyone spoken to them about it? What measures are you using? How will they know? How are they underperforming?

The role of management is to give them feedback and provide opportunities to shine.

The rest of the team need it to happen – and anyone else the employee is working with. Who thrives in a team where others are not contributing, or bringing down the team, or unable to keep up with the expectations?

The company (and the people who run it) need it to happen. My goodness! Who in their right mind would cherish the thought of running an organisation with underperforming employees?

You need it to happen – otherwise you’ll spend your time worrying about what to do, and dealing with the fallout of the underperformance.

Yet the annual performance review hides weak managers. It gives them a chance to delay the tough conversations, or even palm them off to others. It allows managers to avoid regular conversations about performance. It gives them a framework to handle performance, but often too far removed from the employee and their work for it to be relevant and timely.

Annual Performance Reviews can hide weak management poster

If an employee is underperforming mid-year, an effective manager will have fixed it come the end of the year performance reviews. They will have coached, trained, supported, encouraged or sometimes, exited the employee. They don’t drag it out. They do the right thing.

An ineffective manager will drag it out. Wait. Let the formal process take care of it. Let someone else have the tough conversations. They will hide under-performers away, they will give them uninspiring work, or in some cases, they will pull levers of humiliation, restricted pay or bullying to “encourage” them to leave. They will wait for the review and then proceed to blame the “system” and “HR” for making them do it. “I didn’t design these performance questions!!”

But here’s the interesting thing you may see.

If a poor performance review becomes HR’s responsibility after the annual review, a weak manager may score effectively.

“1 out of 5. Must try harder. Poor performance all year. Here’s where you’re letting us down. Sorry, but we’ve got to do something about this…..and, over to HR.”

However, if there is no support from HR or other managers after the review, the weak manager may give them a middle of the road score.

“3 out of 5. Not too bad, but some room for improvement. You could do better and here’s some ideas. Let’s see how the next year goes. But please….please…try harder. Please. Please.”

Effective managers deal with performance every single day. They ask for more, they give feedback and they have tough conversations. They do this with respect and dignity. They are effective AND liked. They do this with the employee’s interests in mind. But they do this to build effective teams.

Here’s my advice on being effective and having to deal with performance reviews that don’t make sense.

Be an effective manager right from the start. It’s easier and more productive from the start. It’s also more fun.

Don’t avoid the truth. Deal with under-performance. Make the right decision for you, the team, the employee and the business. Underperformance, in my experience, is often solved by tweaks to work, coaching and feedback. It needn’t be more than that if dealt with early enough.

Don’t try and fight annual performance reviews but be very critical of them, especially if they happen infrequently and appear to have little to do with genuine performance. Tread carefully though and use your own judgement as to whether it makes sense to challenge.

Measure how much time they take (in person hours – it’s often staggering!) and ask if there is a better way.

Performance reviews are often set in stone by out-dated leadership and management. Truth is, they aren’t always used to assess performance. Instead, they can be a vehicle for ranking everyone against each other and plotting who sits where in the great big graph of employee effectiveness (shudder).

Consider the performance review as an admin task. Something to fill in every year with insights, information and data you’re already on top of. Is it worth fighting this admin task? Or is it better to invest your energy in being effective all year round and simply towing the company line and filing admin?

For employees of effective managers, the annual review score will not be a surprise. But it might be for those running the reviews. In high performing teams everyone is usually operating at a reasonably consistent level. However, there seems to be an unwritten norm that people should be distributed according to a bell-curve. There must be some low performers, some high performers and plenty of people in the middle. It’s what many people running reviews are looking for. For some people, it’s madness to consider that performance review results could resemble anything else.

I don’t buy it.

A good manager is dealing in performance all year round. This means they’re building a team made up of high performing people. There is no reason at all to assume these people will distribute based on a bell curve. Some teams might. Some won’t.

You may be asked to lower some scores and raise others to fit the bell curve perceptions of those running these reviews. This IS certainly something worth challenging in a constructive way.

Imagine what it feels like for someone who’s put their life and soul in to the company. Someone who’s had a brilliant year, who’s improving, who’s contributing, who’s an excellent member of the team – to then get a lower score than expected. To get a lower score than someone else who’s also had a staggering year. (and yes, the scoring system alone is frighteningly impersonal. I’m a 3? What does that mean?)

They’ll feel crap. And so, will you.

You’ll hate that activity of having to justify to yourself why someone scores lower than someone else – just to meet a bell curve distribution. Madness. Performance reviews can be a morale killer for all involved.

The best way to deal with employee performance is to have high performing, effective managers who clearly articulate what success looks like and what behaviours they expect. And then they talk to people about these things…. All. The. Time.

If HR are available to deal with performance matters seek their guidance. Be the manager who takes responsibility for their team though and don’t let someone else do it for you. Be the manager who works with HR (and calls on them when needed) but is the one who owns those conversations about performance.

Work with annual performance review programs, but don’t be led by them. There’s a reason many companies are ditching them. Not only are they expensive, somewhat ineffective and a construct of bad thinking, but they hide weak managers and executives.

Whilst ever you have weak management, you’ll likely see ineffective annual performance reviews thriving. After all, where’s the incentive to remove something that helps weak management avoid tough conversations and deal with performance all year round?

Effective managers deal with performance all year round. And they seek out and use performance frameworks that have this concept at the heart of them. Thankfully – there are plenty of new frameworks around now.

And guess what?

They typically put the manager at the heart of owning conversations around performance 🙂