No one is more pleased than me to see the developing debate about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of what has become known as the annual performance review and ranking process.

Most recently market heavyweights such as Accenture, Deloittes and Microsoft are abandoning this dated and ineffective bureaucratic nonsense in favour of a more modern and engaging approach to understanding what “makes their people tick”.

The reality is, if you want to have a meaningful and productive one on one session with each of your people, once or twice a year, then doing so over an outdated sixteen page questionnaire is not the way to do it.  Remember,  our people are increasingly members of the facebook generation.  In everything they do they are completely informed and permanently engaged.  Just one of these old style performance reviews could be enough to push them away forever.  So we have to think of a smarter way.

Don’t get me wrong.  I absolutely believe in performance reviews.  In my experience, taking the opportunity to sit down with each of your people, one on one, at least once and preferably twice a year is a ‘must do’ for managers.  What needs to change however, is what we do once we get into the meeting room.  There is no doubt that we need to talk to our people about the role they play in the business and how they are doing.  But we also need to listen to what they say about us.

In my various roles I have been reviewing people for the best part of 30 years.  The best results do not come from labouring your way through an overly bureaucratic “made for everyone” form, that the HR department have told you to fill out.  The best results come from having a free flowing discussion with your people about the business, their role in it, and how we can improve.

So we need to think back to the purpose of the performance review.  We are trying to create an opportunity for a manager and a member of his or her team to get together and discuss performance.  Note, I didn’t say whose performance.  Performance reviews should be two-way.  We (managers) should be discussing the performance, expectations and aspirations of each of our people in a meaningful way.  However, we should also be listening to their views on the performance of the business and us as their managers in particular.  We should take notes to keep on file so as we can follow up in 6 months time.  We should also have action points for both parties, so as we can help each other to improve.

First things first.  Let’s start by talking about their performance.  As part of any review, you need to give each person some relevant feedback about your views of him or her.  People need a combination of positive praise and constructive feedback about things they could do better. Here are some things to focus on:

  • Are they hitting their performance targets?  If not why not?
  • What areas do you think they need to work on?
  • Are they doing the basics well enough?
  • Do they behave in a manner that is consistent with the expectations in terms of the culture within the business?
  • Do they get on well with their co-workers?
  • What do their customers think of them?
  • Can you point to things they have done really well?
  • Are they “performance aware”?  (In other words do they know whether they are doing well or not doing well.)

That’s the easy bit.  Now it is time to get their review of us.  The major obstacle to running performance reviews as a relevant two-way conversation is this.  Most managers are largely incompetent when it comes to conducting a meaningful one on one conversation with their people.  This is largely because most managers are not engaged enough in the day-to-day operations of their people and because they don’t see the value in such activities so don’t prepare properly.  Simply put, many managers don’t have the skills and discipline to do this stuff properly.And yet our people will always be closer to the customers or other stakeholders than their managers.  So we should be treating the performance review as an opportunity to get that feedback and plan what to do with it.

So here are some questions that we managers can ask as conversation starters to get a meaningful, two-way performance review underway:

  1. How do you think it’s going?
  2. What do you feel is going really well for you in your role?
  3. Are there any areas where you feel you are struggling?
  4. Do you get the support you need to do the best job you can?
  5. Are there any areas where you feel you would like better support or a different type of support?
  6. Tell me about an experience where things have gone really well.
  7. Tell me about an experience where we mucked up.
  8. Who do you think was at fault there?
  9. Tell me about an experience where you got it wrong and what you learned from that.
  10. What would you do differently next time?
  11. You are much closer to the customer on a day-to-day basis than me – do you see us doing things as a company that could be done better?
  12. Do you feel that you are clear on the aspirations of the business?  Do you understand what the Company objectives are?
  13. Do you see the way we act as being conducive to achieving those goals?
  14. What else could we do to be better?
  15. Do you see us doing unnecessary things that make life difficult for our people?
  16. Do we make it easy enough for our customers to deal with us?
  17. What do you see our competitors doing that we should be seeking to replicate or improve upon?
  18. What could we do better as a company, to help people like you to be more effective in your role?
  19. If you owned the company, what would be your 3 main priorities for change?
  20. Do you understand what the company is trying to achieve and your role in that?
  21. If everything goes well, what aspirations do you have for your career here?
  22. What do you think you need to work on to achieve that?
  23. How do you think we can help you with those objectives?

Of course, most of these questions can lead on to another conversation.  You can then follow up their answers with questions like:  What do we do about that?  How do we improve this?  Is that really happening?  Does the customer know about this?  What do you think we should do?  Give me your opinion?How you conduct such sessions will depend on the roles of the team you are reviewing.  However, if you do this across a team of eight people you will get great feedback on where each of your team members are at and what they are collectively thinking.

Remember, there is nothing that is likely to get people as engaged as asking for, and listening to, their opinion.