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Putting a New Spin on the Dreaded Performance Review

Cornerstone Editors

At its best, the review process is a two-way dialogue that allows employers and employees to speak their piece, get feedback, offer advice and know exactly where they stand at the company. Too often, however, the yearly meetings are little more than an exercise to satisfy HR — and to check some boxes.

This is a word-for-word reenactment of my most recent performance review. Seriously. So you're not alone.

If it’s time to shake up your company’s approach to reviews, consider following the lead of these companies:

Abandon the Formal Review

For starters, consider eliminating the formal — and often formulaic — review process altogether. Adobe did just that successfully in 2012, according to Bob Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at the Stanford Engineering School. Adobe managers are no longer bound to review forms, formulas or even standardized technologies. Instead, "[managers] are simply expected to have regular check-ins to convey what is expected of employees, give and get feedback, and help employees with their growth and development plans," Sutton writes on LinkedIn. "The aim is to give people information when they need it rather than months after teachable moments have passed."

The approach solves a fundamental problem with the traditional review process: Feedback given during infrequent reviews can lack accuracy since both managers and employees forget performance details between meetings. Adobe executives claim that the new approach has helped to retain the best talent. Voluntary departures have decreased 30 percent. Meanwhile, "involuntary departures" have increased 50 percent since managers and employees must regularly address performance gaps.

Judge the Team — Not Individuals

Employees rarely work in isolation, so here’s a thought: Judge people on their team’s performance, rather than their individual performance, says Inc. reporter Ilan Mochari.

To pull off team-based reviews, companies will need to establish goals for each business unit. Business leaders should choose metrics that will have the biggest impact on the business, and hold the team accountable to those goals. However, it’s important not to lose the self-reflection component of performance reviews, Mochari says. He recommends that companies use technology tools to capture employees’ self-evaluations and to compare those responses to managers’ impressions.

Know What NOT to Do

Before you overhaul the review process, however, understand that change isn’t necessarily good. contributor John Hollon levies fair criticism against the co-founder of’s approach to performance reviews. Last year, Paul English, Kayak’s co-founder and chief technology officer, described his unusual performance review style to the New York Times "Corner Office," saying:

I developed this technique over the years. When I gave people their performance reviews, I would literally take a crinkled envelope, and I’d write five words on it. I would take them out to lunch, and I’d say to them, ’Let’s say I left this company, and five years from now I was sitting in a bar and someone said, ’Hey, what’s that guy like?’ What I would tell them is what I’m going to tell you. And there are two or three words that are positive, and there are two or three words that are really negative." I would give examples and I would give them the piece of paper, so I had no written record of what we had talked about.

Candid feedback is important, but Hollon stresses that managers must be consistently candid not just two times per year during the review process. And while Hollon admits that brevity is admirable, employees deserve more than five words scribbled on an envelope.

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