Performance reviews are a tricky business. They’re intended as a judicious, constructive assessment of an employee’s performance over time, but subjectivity gets in the way. If these reviews are inaccurate, they’re not helpful, which explains why so many of us dread them.
Much as we might try, it’s impossible for managers to be fully objective. We’re all biased. Call it human nature, but we just can’t approach a performance review without bringing our own experiences, perceptions, and personalities to the table.
When it comes to delivering a successful review, a number of strategies can help you put biases on the back burner. Sure, you won’t ever be able to achieve total objectivity, but you can approach the process with effective ways to combat your own subjectivity.
Go Beyond the Personality
Personality and performance are two very different ball games. Personality speaks to a person’s characteristics and qualities, while performance speaks solely to outcomes and results. Don’t conflate an employee’s personality with their performance.
If you don’t like the way they’ve approached a particular aspect of their job, ask yourself if there’s a personality difference in play. Does the behavior you’re seeing actually have a negative impact on their job performance, or is it just not what you would do? People handle situations and processes in a wide range of ways, but those differences aren’t inherently bad.
Go Beyond the Recent
When putting together a review, it’s natural for an employee’s most recent behavior to stick out. Psychology calls this phenomenon the recency effect, defined as "the tendency to remember better information that was more recently learned."
If an employee fumbled a major project in the last month, that will overshadow a year’s worth of stellar work. In order to get an accurate picture of their performance, you need to look at results pulled from a longer period of time.
Go Beyond the Past
There’s a flip side to that last point. Focusing too much on job performance from ages ago can distort a performance review just as much as excessive focus on the recent. Performance often changes over time. If an employee demonstrated growth in particular over the last few weeks or months, that’s the most relevant information. On the other hand, if they’ve slipped in an area in which they’ve historically performed well, don’t look the other way. It shouldn’t negate past strong performance, but it’s still worth addressing.
Go Beyond a Singular View
In the sciences, reasonable conclusions come from collecting a range of data. The same principle applies to performance management. Seeking input from others helps tremendously in building a clear picture of an employee’s successes and shortcomings.
Use peer reviews as a tool to inform your own assessments. Since they work side by side, peers have insights about each other that you may miss. Even if you require just one peer review to accompany every performance review you give, letting another voice weigh in helps you see beyond your own biases.
Go Beyond the Good Cop
Excessively positive feedback inhibits a well-rounded assessment. It’s more comfortable to focus on the positive while glossing over the negative in a performance review, but the manager who fears voicing criticism is an ineffective one. Without constructive criticism there can be no growth, so don’t neglect to discuss areas that need improvement. The long-term payoff will far outweigh the discomfort of delivering negative feedback.
Go Beyond the Bad Cap
By the same token, an overwhelmingly negative performance review, even if it’s all constructive, fosters discouragement, demoralization, and resentment. As an employee engagement survey conducted by Glassdoor revealed, 81% of employees are motivated to work hard when their boss shows appreciation for their work. A successful performance review delivers praise for what was done well, so don’t neglect to give credit where it’s due.
Go Beyond Your Workplace
In order to accurately gauge an employee’s performance in their role, look outside your own workplace to find out what they should be aiming for. Job expectations make sense in a larger context. What are the required competencies for employees in comparable roles? What behaviors do successful employees exhibit, and how are those behaviors measured? A firm grasp on the industry landscape helps you create reasonable standards by which to measure your own employees’ success.
Go Beyond Subjective Standards
A sound performance review begins with setting up measurable standards. To successfully assess employee performance, you need to create questions that produce quantifiable, concrete answers. You can ask, "Is Sally a problem solver?" but to answer that you first need to ask, "What are some ways in which Sally demonstrated the ability to problem solve?" The former requires you to draw a subjective conclusion, whereas the second draws out examples to prove the same conclusion. Measurable standards encourage objectivity, making it easier to keep your biases in check.
With such a high percentage of employees believing that performance reviews are inaccurate, finding solutions to improve accuracy contributes to satisfaction in the workplace. In the effort to invest in employee retention, providing accurate reviews becomes especially crucial. Thus, setting biases plays a role in long-term engagement.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2015 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.
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