Piece of Work is a column about workplace behavior and feelings: everything that happens at the office, except your actual job.
Here it comes, looming over you now, made all the more dreadful for happening just weeks after the holidays (remember those), when you were free and happy: performance review season. [Two hundred ravens land on your cubicle walls, waiting.] Chances are, no matter where you work, when you were hired, or how frequently your manager gives you feedback, in January (often dragging into February), you’ll be called into a meeting with your supervisor, who will tell you why you’re a worse employee than you thought, and possibly present you with a piece of paper summarizing the reasons why.
This is, more or less, how 60 to 90 percent of employees (including managers) feel about performance reviews, and yet, nearly 90 percent of companies hold them annually. As well as being nearly universally disliked, annual performance reviews are also expensive — in 2015, the consulting firm Deloitte said its employees and managers spent 2 million hours a year on performance reviews. In 2014, Gap told HuffPost that it spent $3 million a year into reviews. While some companies have, in recent years, moved to eliminate the formal, annual review process — like Accenture, a global consulting firm which employs more than 330,000 people — they often complicate matters, requiring different departments to come up with their own, individual techniques for evaluating employees. In essence: the thing itself is very bad, but getting rid of them is also bad, or at least very complicated.
In 2008, Samuel Culbert, a professor of management and organizations at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, made waves with an op-ed against performance reviews published in The Wall Street Journal. He later published a book on the subject, with an admirably frank title: Get Rid of the Performance Review!: How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing — and Focus on What Really Matters. Neither does he mince words when we speak by phone. “Everything about performance reviews is deceitful and dishonest and bogus,” he says. “They’re a fraud.”
The way Culbert sees it, the performance-review dynamic is inherently doomed by the opposing goals of the manager, and the employee. “When it comes time for an annual performance review, the employee walks in the room and wants to hear the good things they’ve done, the contributions and sacrifices they’ve made, have been seen, valued, and they’re going to be rewarded,” he says. “And the boss walks in the room to tell the individual their faults.” Culbert, who, by his estimation, has spoken to more than a hundred thousand employees and managers about performance reviews, says that this dynamic erodes trust, often requiring that the person who hired the employee is the same one tasked with “breaking them down.” The manager is essentially forced to find fault with an employee they may be perfectly satisfied with, because if they don’t critique them, HR will think the manager isn’t doing her job, says Culbert.
Because the manager may not have any real investment in what she says, and the employee may have no desire to change (especially not when criticized), the entire process becomes a charade. Culbert, who is also a clinical psychologist, says these annual-review theatrics are hard on employee morale. “[The annual review] puts a huge amount of pressure on people, and causes people to go into a constant pretending. It’s a terrible pressure,” he says. “And we all know that when people can be their authentic selves, they have their best chance for being comfortable, and for being their best.”
Here, too, is the other essential crisis inherent to the performance review: they don’t work, according to Kevin Murphy, chair of work and employment studies at the University of Limerick and co-author of Performance Appraisal and Management. “Almost everyone believes feedback is important and useful, but the research says, ehhh, that’s not really quite true,” says Murphy. “About a third of the time, feedback makes things better, about a third of the time feedback makes things worse, and about a third of the time it has no effect whatsoever.” In the grand scheme of things, he says, feedback is “a wash.” There is only one, relatively short period in which manager feedback is constructive to employees, says Murphy, and that’s when they’ve just been hired. Once an employee understands his or her job duties, feedback has little to no effect on their overall job performance, which is insane, considering how much time and energy we devote to giving and receiving it.
Obviously, there are instances in which an employee’s performance is bad to the point that intervention is needed. But, says Culbert, it’s rare, and usually the solution is to let that person go. “If you want to fire somebody, then you document what they’re doing that’s off, and you make your case,” he says. “But most people are good enough employees, who could be a lot better if they had teamwork with their boss, so that the two of them worked effectively for the company’s best interests.” Employees want to see their managers as allies, Culbert says, not antagonists, but reviews — in which, typically, the employee isn’t offered the ability to critique her manager in kind — make that impossible. Though some companies offer “360 degree reviews,” in which everyone (including managers) receives feedback from not just supervisors, but peers and subordinates, Culbert says the anonymity inherent to this technique creates fear. Murphy adds, too, that 360 degree reviews create risk by inviting too many perspectives to the table, such that it’s easier for an employee to discount any (or all) of them.
Then there is the matter of hurt feelings. Murphy says most of the disappointment employees feel post-review “stems from is that people consistently think they’re better at their jobs than most other people think.” (Except for you and me, of course.) When people aren’t told they’re doing as well as they themselves believe, they’re inclined to find that feedback unfair. Even in cases where employees receive feedback from multiple sources (like 360 degree reviews), we’re really, really good at hearing only what we want to. “If you think you’re a really good performer, and you get seven different sources telling you you’re not so good, and one that says yes, you are, what do you do? You tend to discount the seven, and say, ‘See, I knew I was good,’” says Murphy.
Managers, should they want to motivate their employees, says Murphy, are well-advised to rate them very positively. “If I give you, as my subordinate, a high rating, you’re more likely to get a raise, you’re less likely to feel like you’ve been badly treated, you’re more likely to be motivated,” he says. If a supervisor gives an employee a bad rating, they will not only de-motivate that employee, but that bad review will also reflect poorly on the manager, whose job it is to help that employee perform well. “Almost every factor in the situation pushes you to tell people they’re wonderful,” says Murphy. “That’s the only thing they’re going to believe, and that’s what they’re hoping to hear.”
This is, in fact, what most employers do — in most organizations, says Murphy, 80 percent of all employees are rated as above average, a mathematical impossibility. But because very few of those “above average” ratings are followed by meaningful raises, employees don’t find them especially rewarding. “The evidence is really clear that if you want to have a performance incentive effect, you probably need to give a 7–10 percent raise rather than 2–3 percent,” says Murphy. “So what happens is that people who’ve done really, really well get a 3 percent raise, people who’ve done poorly get a 2 percent raise, and everyone feels like this is a joke.”
And yet, there is perhaps little to be done to fix it, says Murphy. “The sort of performance reviews we see in most organizations are probably about as good as they’re going to get,” he says. So long as people aren’t perfect, neither can be any process we use to evaluate each other, which makes this whole thing into a sort of ouroborus of corporate despair. What’s important to remember, says Culbert, is that most people really do want to do a good job at work; it’s just that what doing a “good” job looks like is different for everyone. “Everybody’s imperfect,” he says. “The genius of people is that we work around our imperfections, and we do things in a way that allows us to do them in the best way we can.”