By David Arella

Thirty years ago, a performance management system included written and oral individual feedback between a manager and each of his or her direct reports.  Sometimes HR managers had to hound managers to complete those performance reviews, but employees could count on a meeting with their managers to discuss strengths and weaknesses, achievements against goals, and developmental targets for the next year.

The performance review was seen as a way to either justify a salary increase or, in cases where there were problems, to begin a documentation trail to move an employee out of the company without legal ramifications. Managers understood this annual process was “necessary,” but few of those involved, not even the HR folks, believed that the annual performance review led to improved employee or departmental performance.

The basic process has evolved little, with the exception of two changes: (1) There is a somewhat greater emphasis on setting goals, and (2) we have new tools for constructing review documents. Enhancements in the form of new tools have been directed primarily at speeding up the process, not improving it.

Performance review writing circa 1984 involved a manager composing a one- or two-page personal appraisal report using a word processor (the newer programs at the time had spell checking). Today managers can “write” the review with a few clicks of a mouse. They use performance management software to select the characteristics (e.g., “exhibits teamwork”) from a predefined list (sometimes called “coaching tips”) to indicate how strongly or weakly worded they want to make the point. A few clicks and voilà, a politically correct, legally correct, and spell-checked paragraph has been “written.” In less than 10 minutes the reviewing manager has created the (too often dreaded) annual review document for that employee.

I recently viewed an industry-leading performance management system. In touting the system’s sophistication the vendor boasted, “With the click of a button…the document can be automatically personalized….” Does anyone else see the oxymoron here–“automatically personalized”?

Cleverly disguised by enhanced electronic aids, the new written reviews amount to the same antiquated practice, only with new packaging. We have paved the cow path and upped the speed limit, but we have not improved the journey or the destination. As outlined below, the increased speed and automation of this approach serves to reduce the value of the employee performance review process.

I have three initial concerns with this development:

(1)   Speeding up the writing process may reduce the effectiveness of the intended communication to the employee. The process of writing requires applying a thinking process. Managers who take the time to compose their own original paragraphs are likely to be more specific and grounded in their feedback than those who click on generalized “coaching tips.” Additionally, the act of the writing indirectly helps managers to prepare their script for the meeting with the employees. [Note: Some performance management systems enable sending the document directly to the employee to obtain his or her electronic signature. This allows the manager to skip the meeting or personal communication altogether.]

(2)  Automating the document sets the wrong mood for a performance discussion with the employee. Clicking through canned responses to generate boilerplate text implicitly suggests that the review process is mechanistic, one-size-fits-all, and mostly trivial. The sooner the manager and employee get through this annual process the quicker they can get back to the “real work”–as if employee development were not part of the job.

(3)  This performance management system is often confused with a system designed to improve performance. Traditional performance management systems include a key lever for improving performance: the one-to-one communication between manager and employee. They are often inadequate, however, due to lack of frequency and quality to realize their potential for improving performance.

Performance improvement conversations benefit from periodic goal setting and review, but the real driver is at the granular level of making and keeping weekly and monthly commitments. Every request made by a manager is an opportunity to forge an effective agreement for a specific and defined result. Each request begins a dialog that should have an explicit delivery and assessment at the end. Each dialog is an opportunity to enhance performance and build trust.

Rather than offer support for performance management reviews once a year, or even once a quarter, software tools with a year-round focus on performance improvement can facilitate a new approach to manager-employee communication. In addition to creating an annual employee review document, managers and employees can use software tools to help boost the quality and frequency of their ongoing dialogue around project and task completion. A stronger lever for boosting personal and enterprise-wide performance is in elevating and illuminating one-on-one conversations between those requesting actions or services and those who carry out those requests. Rather than facilitate the use of automated, canned responses, the next generation of performance improvement software can advance performance management practice in a way that qualitatively changes the performance management system in use over the last 30 years.

David Arella About the Author
David Arella has been designing and implementing innovative HR and workforce management software applications for over 20 years. Many of these solutions were the first-ever in their product category. His current company offers web-based solutions for managing performance conversations that improve accountability, visibility, and trust.