You're probably familiar with the anecdotal evidence against performance reviews. Anyone who has ever worked in an office has heard colleagues complain about the annual ritual of ranking and reviewing employees. You very well may have moaned about it yourself.

But just because nearly everyone seems to hate something doesn't necessarily mean it's useless or invalid (no one like vaccinations, for instance, but we all recognize their value). Is the performance review as it's currently practiced at most companies one such necessary evil, or does the general loathing of the practice reflect a genuine need to reform this old standard of corporate leadership?

A great recent post on New York magazine's Science of Us blog offers a pretty conclusive answer by rounding up a host of research on the issue, all of which points in one direction: for the love of all that's holy, please, please kill the performance review already.

Why performance reviews end up being empty theater

The annual review isn't a horrible idea in theory. It makes sense for bosses to want to know who's knocking it out of the park and who's lollygagging on the bench most of the time. And employees can obviously benefit from useful feedback. The trouble arises, Science of Us points out, when this theory collides with human nature and our general tendency to avoid conflict.

For example, Jisoo Ock, the lead researcher of one recent study on the practice, argues "that the classic 'sit down with your manager and review the year' model ignores the social context of the workplace," the post reports. "No one wants to hear negative feedback, and most people feel uncomfortable when they have to dole it out, too. Plus, the formalized feel of the process makes it feel weird; Ock points out that supervisors suddenly have to shift 'from being inspirers, motivators, or even friends to being judicial evaluators of employees.'"

The result, according to a pile of studies, is that the vast majority of reviews end up being slightly above average and therefore pretty much useless to both frontline employees and leadership.

What's better?

The conclusion really couldn't be clearer. It is past time for the annual review to die a dignified death after fifty years or so of service. What should replace it? Science of Us helpfully offers a research-validated answer: "Informal feedback sessions--conversations that take place directly following some disappointment in performance--have been shown to result in an actual improvement in performance."

Well, that's simple then. Cut it out with the five point scales and awkward, time-wasting end-of-year one-on-ones and simply start telling your staff when they could have done better.

Does this research agree with your experience?

Published on: Jun 4, 2015
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