Performance Review Hooey

Jul 17, 2019

By Kevin Herring

After calculating the time, expense, and lack of return on investment, companies like Lockheed, Adobe Systems, and NASA have pulled the plug on performance reviews. Are reviews just a bunch of “hooey”? Kevin Herring suggests an alternative.

We’ve just experienced that time of the year when organizations are abustle with performance grading, self- reviews, rank ordering, goal setting, final performance evaluations, and merit pay raises—all in the name of managing performance. The amount of activity and anxiety the performance review process produces almost makes last-minute holiday shopping feel like a seasonal stress reliever. So what's all the fuss about?

They say that if managers don't do end-of-year performance reviews, people won't work hard enough at their jobs; it's a last ditch effort to hold people accountable. Really? Is that what we believe about our so-called greatest assets? Well, not everyone. And get this: some of those doubters are the same zealots who hound you to turn in your performance reviews.

While HR leaders clamor for you to do performance reviews in order to hold people accountable, they secretly report in national surveys that they really use them to justify pay increases. In fact, any reasons they give relating to managing performance end up at or near the bottom of the list.

How ironic! Apparently, when it comes to performance reviews, some HR leaders are feeding managers a bunch of hooey. Fed up with it, companies like Lockheed, Adobe Systems, and NASA have pulled the plug on performance reviews. After calculating the time, expense, and lack of return on investment, leaders decided resources drained by doing them could be better used in more productive activities.

Of course, not everyone is ready to break with tradition. A hurdle for some is feeling they have to plug the hole that's left when the forms are gone and not knowing what to do instead. Historically, the old review process has been a way to check up on supervisors who weren't doing their jobs. Bad supervisors had to be told to track results, give feedback (particularly when things weren't going well), and prove they were complying by turning in a form for each employee at the end of the year. Letting them off the hook by telling them they no longer have to do reviews seems risky. If they stop doing reviews, how would supervisors be held accountable for holding everyone else accountable? Well, to shift to an appraisal-less workplace, we have to first stop thinking of performance management as a way to hold people accountable: then, change how we're managing.

It sounds strange, doesn't it? Isn't holding people accountable the boss's job? The problem is, holding people accountable simply reinforces employee compliance at the expense of commitment. It's this hold-them-accountable mentality that causes organizations to define performance management as an extra half a percent raise or one-point drop on a rating scale, as if personal fulfillment at work can be reduced to a level of cheese and electric shocks in a lab experiment. But the way to produce meaning and purpose—commitment—isn’t through simplistic rewards and punishments and holding people accountable for compliance. It comes from a sense of ownership for something bigger than oneself.

How do we help employees shift their energies away from complying with the boss’s expectations to committing to business success? How do we support them in taking on meaningful improvement initiatives as their own?

Here are four leadership practices will help:

  1. Hold team meetings where everyone comes together and determines what the team can do better to confront challenges and contribute to business unit goals. Facilitate rich, collaborative discussions that identify critical team outputs and actions team members need to take to succeed.
  2. Help develop both team and individual commitments that combine to improve overall team performance and contribute to business unit goals. Establish defined goals and tracking mechanisms for commitments.
  3. Keep commitments and metrics visible by posting them on walls and places frequented by team members.
  4. Provide regular feedback by holding frequent team meetings where team members solicit helpful information from each other about what they should change to help the team succeed.

Start the process by educating employees about the business and their impact on it. Then involve them more in solving problems and deciding how to do the work. Eventually, you can use these alternatives to performance reviews and stop holding people accountable with implied threats and promises of insignificant rewards through performance ratings and merit pay increases. It will change your conversations about accountability. You’ll find that instead of conversations about compliance, you will be having conversations about commitment. Best of all, you can stop wasting time doing all the activities associated with performance reviews and spend your time doing things that actually fuel higher performance.

Trying it on for fit:
As an individual contributor, you can take the initiative and start building a culture of ownership, collaboration, and enthusiasm for performance improvements by finding ways to educate yourself and fellow team members about the business. Start by asking questions to learn the business. Discuss with others how you might work better together to solve a problem or improve team performance. Post your commitments and performance results where they can be easily seen and talked about. Schedule a regular time to meet fellow team members and ask them what they want you to keep doing as well as what they would like you to change in order to fulfill your commitments and contribute to team goals.

© 2012 Ascent Management Consulting, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Herring Kevin Herring is founder and president of Ascent Management Consulting (  He is coauthor of Practical Guide for Internal Consultants.  Contact him at: [email protected]