Leadership

A Four-Question Performance Review? Not So Fast.

By / Mar 23, 2015 (iStock/Thinkstock)

A consulting firm’s new performance review process seems amazingly efficient. But a handful of questions alone won’t make for effective reviews.

As awe-inspiring moments go, the claim that effective performance reviews can be reduced to four questions is comparable to the discovery of the Holy Grail or an airport gate with ample charger outlets. But consulting firm Deloitte claims to have cracked the code to produce a review system that is simple for managers, inspirational to staff, and less dreaded for both.

In the Harvard Business Review, Deloitte’s director of leader development, Ashley Goodall, and author Marcus Buckingham describe the firm’s effort to declutter its performance management process. A bit of research helped the firm recognize that the typical review process had become absurdly time-consuming—“close to 2 million hours a year,” they write—and that rating staffers on past performance is often less important than recognizing potential for future growth. That done, they arrived at four measures that “clearly highlight differences among individuals and reliably measure performance”:

We are asking our team leaders what they would do with each team member rather than what they think of that individual.
  1. Given what I know of this person’s performance, and if it were my money, I would award this person the highest possible compensation increase and bonus.
  2. Given what I know of this person’s performance, I would always want him or her on my team.
  3. This person is at risk for low performance.
  4. This person is ready for promotion today.

The first two questions use a five-point scale; the second two are simple yes-or-no queries. No question, there’s a get-to-the-point attitude in those yardsticks that’s easy to admire. One critical aspect of management is knowing how well staffers can work together on teams, and these questions force managers to focus on that during performance reviews: Do I really want this person on my team? “In effect, we are asking our team leaders what they would do with each team member rather than what they think of that individual,” Goodall and Buckingham write. Moreover, they recommend that this be done iteratively—once a quarter, say, or after every project, instead of once every long year.

But using those four lines alone is a recipe for disaster from a staff-management level, and I fear a lot of managers who already have a lot to think about will simply run with the four-line method, with its promise of simple answers and seductive longitudinal Big Data processes, and figure they can avoid long nights at the office during performance-review week. The Washington Post, summarizing the article, oversold the process’ simplicity with an eye-catching headline: “What if you could replace performance evaluations with four simple questions?

Well, you can’t, no more than you can lose 20 pounds in two weeks with that one weird trick those online ads keep promising. Tucked toward the end of Goodall and Buckingham’s article is the catch for this simple method, though I trust you won’t think of it as a catch: If you really want to understand your staffers and turn them into effective, promotable, leadership-minded teammates, you have to talk to them. The article explains:

Our design calls for every team leader to check in with each team member once a week. For us, these check-ins are not in addition to the work of a team leader; they are the work of a team leader. … The content of these conversations will be a direct outcome of their frequency: If you want people to talk about how to do their best work in the near future, they need to talk often. And so far we have found in our testing a direct and measurable correlation between the frequency of these conversations and the engagement of team members. Very frequent check-ins (we might say radically frequent check-ins) are a team leader’s killer app.

I confess I find it funny that writers in an august journal like HBR need to brandish data to defend the notion that talking to your employees just might help them feel more engaged in their work, and that talking to them once a week is radically frequent. But it’s not surprising that the point needs to be made. Last year, I wrote about a business owner who (understandably) decided to dispense with performance reviews but (inexplicably) spent little time filling the gap by spending time better understanding his employees’ challenges and goals. “Reviews can show you where the gaps are between your perceptions and an employees,” I wrote then. “But regular engagement can narrow them before it comes to review time.”

That’s a critical element of Deloitte’s new process, which is still being implemented and tweaked. There’s a reason why the formal review process can be reduced to four simple lines: It’s a formalizing element of a perpetual review process with employees, not the whole of the review process itself. The dream of a shorter performance-review process will never die. But the solution will never be finding a way to think of your staffers as mere data points.

What do you do to formalize regular conversations with your team members, and how do those conversations feed into your performance reviews? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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