Ditch Performance Reviews, Adopt Performance <i>Previews</i> Instead

If you don't like your boss slotting you into a certain percentile once a year -- or you don't like doing that to your employees -- then UCLA-Anderson's Samuel Culbert is your kind of guy. This professor of human resources and organizational behavior has recently released a book entitled Get Rid of the Performance Review!: How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing -- and Focus on What Really Matters. Last week, we discussed why he believes that, well, performance reviews suck. This week, we learn about his solution, the performance preview.

BNET: Why are performance previews better than reviews?

Culbert: First of all, performance previews don't take place once a year because the HR calendar says it's time. They take place every time we need to discuss how we're doing and what kind of help the employee needs from the boss. Through this process, we acknowledge we're imperfect people; we don't have to create the illusion that we're professionals with no needs or faults.

We need to discover the "unique genius" of the other guy and how he or she is able to achieve results, even if they don't measure up on any standards. The boss's job is to make sure employees succeed.

BNET: What are the main elements of a performance preview?
Culbert: One, we need to learn about one another: our strong suits, our preferences, and our needs for further learning and help.

Two, we need to meet to review results whenever it seems like the right thing to be doing, not just once per year.

Three, the boss only succeeds when his employees succeed. We need to change the power structure. We don't need to be evaluating the employee, we need to evaluate the boss/employee team.

Four, we need to make it so there are no penalties for being authentic and having real and open communication. Where we don't trust each other, it will be okay to talk about that ... it will be necessary to talk about it. In the end, we have our skin in the game together.

BNET: How would making a change in the employee evaluation system alter organizational dynamics?

Culbert: We need to put the "big boss" [the CEO] into the game to monitor these relationships, these teams we are evaluating. I think this is the first substantial book that talks to big bosses about their role in supporting the kind of relationship that creates good management. This is the kind of system that lets the employee out of jail and puts the employee on an equal footing. The big boss needs to make sure his middle managers can be called out on their dysfunctional behavior.

At the end of the day, systems like this help solidify hierarchical control. Bosses should be the ones making decisions. But we're talking about hierarchical decisionmaking here, not hierarchical relationships, which are a big part of the dysfunction in corporations.

Research came out in 2000 from Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins that clearly documented 27 organizations of various types -- from the police department at the University of Wisconsin to various manufacturing enterprises -- that had eliminated performance reviews. A study was done five years later to follow up with these companies. The results seem very positive to me. Get rid of performance reviews, and people will figure out how to work together in very intelligent ways given their local culture and management styles.

BNET: How come we don't have this kind of system in more companies?

Culbert: Who in the company wants to take on HR? The CEO? That's not his job -- he's supposed to run out to Wall Street and sell people on the stock. If HR were to enact this kind of thing themselves, then they'd be out of the KGB business, being the keeper of the dirty little secrets. They argue that we need to keep doing performance reviews because we might need this information in court if we're sued by an employee. I've been paid to be an expert witness two dozen times in lawsuits for wrongful termination, both for companies and for plaintiffs. I've never once seen a performance review pulled out as evidence.

BNET: And ultimately, how do dysfunctional feedback mechanisms impact company performance?

Culbert: Bosses are banking evidence of bad performance, so they have something to compile in their performance reviews, rather than taking the quick corrective action! If you own the company, this is not what you want happening. What you want is people speaking up immediately when they see that a certain relationship is not working or a certain project might not be coming out right.