Is Your Annual Performance Review Process Creating Workplace Zombies?

workplace zombiesAs Zina walked towards her co-worker’s cubicle she knew something was off. Sandra, dubbed the “golden child”, was staring out of her cubicle into space. Zina approached slowly and waved her hand in front of Sandra’s face and said loudly, “what’s up with you?”. At that moment, Sandra came out of her haze, looked at Zina and said “oh, nothing…just thinking about my performance review this morning…what a drain!”

While evaluating performance is a valuable process for a mission-driven organization, many executive directors are unknowingly allowing their process to suck the life out of their managers and employees. Want to know if you are hosting a back-up filming site for AMC’s The Walking Dead?

Here are some clues:

Clue #1: Your Top Performers Dread The Process
After you have spent a little time in management, you recognize the quirks of the annual performance review game: the employees with good performance who underrate themselves, the employees with poor performance who overrate themselves and the managers who can’t muster the courage to select “below average” in any category. These are just some of the “oddities” that make the annual talk about performance awkward.

While it is easy to assume that the only employees complaining about the annual performance review are the ones with poor performance, that assumption can mask an overlooked truth. When top performers are waxing cold, it is time to look under the hood. In general, for the performance review process to be worthwhile, employees, managers and the organization as a whole must see and derive value from it.

Clue #2: Your Managers Are Not Comfortable With Feeling Uncomfortable
No matter how many times you have done it, addressing performance challenges with an employee face-to-face is never easy. Even for experienced managers it can feel like walking into the lion’s den. It is no wonder then that the mere thought of having the conversation can trigger sweaty palms, a rapid heartbeat and the urge to flee. That is a normal human response to a perceived threat – real or not.

However, to avoid that feeling many managers will dance around or avoid addressing a significant performance issue with an employee. Ninety percent or more of the time that tactic backfires on them as most performance issues escalate if left unchecked. To be effective, managers must learn to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Situations involving conflict and uncertainty produce feelings of discomfort each and every time. Instead of avoiding the normal feelings of discomfort involved in the performance management process, the savvy manager normalizes them to improve the experience.

Clue #3: Your Annual Performance Review Form Is More Focused On The Past Than The Future
As a leadership strategist, this is one of the biggest blunders I’ve seen in organizations relative to performance assessment – the form has become more important than the function. I’ve watched organizations spend thousands of dollars and countless hours of time collecting performance data every year to put on a form that will sit in a folder in a file drawer collecting dust until the next year. Sadly, I admit that I have not only been part of the dysfunction, but an advocate for it in the past.

Now, I advise my clients to create value rather than a process when it comes to performance assessment. That strategy will lead an organization to invest more dollars and energy on perfecting the dialogue rather than the form. After all, the primary purpose of the form is to help employees understand how their performance needs to grow in the following year to help the organization reach its goals. The real value is in cultivating growth.

Unfortunately, most performance review forms dedicate 80% of their real estate to past performance and only 20% to future performance. This puts the focus of the annual conversation on how employees performed over the last twelve months. However, to cultivate growth, organizations must shift the focus of the annual conversation to how employees should perform in the next twelve months. Doing so enlightens the organization on how to better prepare managers to support and encourage behavior change.