Prescription – How to deliver a “dysfunction-free” performance review

More often than not, workplace dysfunction is a sneaky and unpredictable thing. Your boss flips out without warning simply because your report is an hour late. Your co-worker smiles at you in the break room only to be secretly plotting to get you fired the first chance they get. However, there is one time of year that dysfunction can be anticipated – performance review time. This season is particularly ripe with dysfunction, headaches, heartbreaks and generally heightened levels of anxiety and stress. Think of it as that season later in life when we are all more likely to get diagnosed with a major illness. We all know it’s coming and we know there are things we can do to prevent it. But do we? I can speak for myself and say that that season may be sooner than later if I don’t get my act together.

Diagnosing Causes of Performance Review Dysfunction

There are some common causes of dysfunctional performance reviews. Here are some of the most dangerous dark clouds that hover over the performance review process, guaranteeing unhealthy outcomes:

  • When politics are at play – Sometimes the performance review process is a useless and de-motivating experience that could and should be avoided as a result of unhealthy politics being at play (for more on those symptoms, go here).
  • When the review is chock full of surprises – Surprises may be a good thing when it comes to birthday parties and vacations (at least according to my wife), but they have no place in a performance review (for more on those symptoms, go here).
  • When the review becomes a personal attack – Performance reviews are about… get ready… performance. I know that’s a shocker. When the review process become an attack on one’s character, or when they don’t strike the right balance of personal investment and objectivity, the outcome can go horribly wrong (for more on those symptoms, go here).

Disease Prevention

Avoiding the dysfunctions associated with performance reviews are the equivalent of brushing / flossing daily and going to the dentist every 6 months for regular check-ups. You need to stay on top of it. Let’s take a step back. Imagine if you didn’t brush or floss (at all… not even one time) and didn’t go to the dentist for a whole year. When you finally did show up at the dentist’s office after 12 months of no contact and negligence, I doubt that would be a pleasant and predictable experience (not to mention the bad breath).

Here are some ways we can ensure a healthy performance review conversation. Thanks to my good friend Stacie Hagan, Chief People Officer at Earthlink for the following list on how to conduct performance reviews (the concepts work for both managers and employees):

  • Do Them All the Time – Yes, that’s right. Reviewing performance is good and should happen every day. Don’t have the calendar dictate when to give feedback. Do it when it’s needed. Periodic reviews required by the company should never offer anything new, but merely recap what was already said.
  • Listen as Much as You Talk – Both manager and employee have unique and valid views on the work. Wouldn’t it be nice to know what they are? Share your thoughts. See where they match and where they differ. Build a plan that makes you both feel good about the future.
  • Assume Responsibility for Each Other’s Success – A performance review is NOT about establishing one person’s dominance over the other. We’re all adults – working for the same company – trying to achieve the same goals. Talk about how you can help the company be successful by helping each other succeed.
  • Make Notes – You got it ‐‐ fill out the form (if there is one). Why? Because we all know that if the company didn’t require performance reviews, none of us would ever have these conversations, despite our best intentions. (Ok, some small percentage would. The same percentage who exercise regularly; eat a balanced, low fat, high‐fiber diet; see the dentist every six months; and make their bed daily.)

The key is regular feedback, updates, check-ins and check-ups. One company that I recently discovered that’s fighting this dysfunction head-on is Small Improvements. They’ve created an innovative platform that does a fantastic job integrating continuous and 360 degree feedback, objectives management and performance reviews in a way that is seamless, ongoing, non-judgmental and allows for EVERYONE to participate (you can hop online and give your co-worker praise that will be part of his / her performance review months later). Kudos to them for trying to keep our performance conversations at work healthy, productive and dysfunction free.  To learn more about Small Improvements and what they are up to, go here.

Brush and Floss Daily

So, if you want to have an uneventful, productive and healthy performance review, whether you are the boss or the employee, treat it just like going to the dentist. Brush and floss daily (provide regular feedback) and have frequent “check-ups” (at least twice a year but shoot for quarterly if possible) and you’ll be cavity free. Avoid brushing / flossing and wait until the end of the year for the conversation, and pain is practically guaranteed. Not to mention, the breath… Yuck.


And in case you missed it, here’s my GPB radio interview on performance reviews:

Performance Reviews. Always Dysfunctional.



When performance reviews become personal

It has been my experience that when performance reviews turn dysfunctional, 50% of the time the issue lies with the content itself (its inaccurate, vague, political, etc…). However, for the other 50% of the time it has to do with how the feedback was delivered. Sometimes the feedback comes across as a personal attack. It’s as if our manager simply doesn’t like us. Other times the feedback comes across as a cold and callous assault. It’s almost as though our manager could care less about us as a human being. In either case, if performance feedback isn’t grounded in caring for the person with the sincere desire to see him or her improve, it just simply won’t work. And worse, bad things can happen.

Cynthia’s Story

Cynthia was an absolute rock star in her job. She had been with her company for nearly 15 years in a district sales role. Every year, there were competitions for who could get the most sales with the winner receiving an exotic trip as the prize. Only it wasn’t a competition. Cynthia won every year. She was the best, and better yet, all of the others in the organization new it, respected her for it and went to her for advice. Cynthia even started coordinating a weekly sales call with all of her peers around the globe in order to help everyone get better. This particular year, there had been a shake up at corporate and Cynthia had a new boss from a different department all together. Cynthia wasn’t clear if this new boss liked her or not, but when she received her review, things went from vague to hostile. Here were the components of her review:

  • It was vague – scribbled in messy handwriting it said: “improve your work.” Nothing more.
  • It was personal – one line read “Cynthia is too happy and bubbly all of the time. It can be annoying to others”
  • It was not grounded in results – Cynthia’s high performance and the measureable results were never mentioned – not once.
  • It was not accurate – Some of the same exact comments appeared in all of Cynthia’s co-worker’s reviews

Initially, Cynthia was devastated. She was convinced her boss didn’t like her (for signs your boss doesn’t like you, consider these) and she was searching for ways to improve. In the end, she wrote her boss off as incompetent and moved on. I don’t think the performance review process had the intended impact, do you? Sometimes no review is better than something that dysfunctional.

Pierre’s Story

Like Cynthia, Pierre was also a rock star in his job. However, unlike Cynthia, Pierre had only been in his job for less than a year. Big numbers and goals were set for Pierre and he stunned his entire company by exceeding every single goal laid out for him in year one. When the CEO of the company decided to give Pierre his review, he was planning on flying down to Pierre’s office and delivering it face-to-face. But then the CEO thought, “why don’t I make this trip efficient and invite others so we can have a strategic planning retreat while I’m in town.” Ultimately, the retreat became the focus of the trip, so, instead of sitting down with Pierre and going over his review, Pierre was handed his performance review in the men’s bathroom by the CEO. “Let me know if you have any questions,” was all that was said to Pierre. Inside the report, Pierre was greeted with:

  • No acknowledgement of his accomplishments – there were no significant praises or congratulatory remarks even though he was the only person in the company to hit the numbers he hit
  • Unrealistic goals – Pierre was rewarded by having his goals tripled for the following year, setting impossible goals to achieve, completely de-motivating Pierre
  • No raise – To add insult to injury, Pierre did not receive any raise for his stellar efforts

In the end, Pierre saw his boss, the CEO, as not really caring about him or his growth. His boss simply wanted to squeeze him like a lemon, get as much as he could out of him and when there was nothing left but a mushy rind, toss him in the trash.

What Can You Do?

If you are the manager, here are two important takeaways for you:

Don’t make it personal – personality conflicts have no place in performance reviews. If you can’t back up a statement with facts, consider not including it at all. And if you really don’t like the person that you have to review, consider having someone else conduct the review. Emotion is louder than performance feedback. If others think you don’t like him or her, that’s all they’ll hear.

Make it personal – Establish your positive intentions for your direct reports up front. If they believe you care about them and want to see them grow and improve, they’ll be amazingly open to even the toughest feedback. But if they don’t think you care, don’t expect them to care about what you have to say.

And if you are on the receiving end of a personal attack from your boss in your performance review, don’t be afraid to end the review and contact Human Resources. When things get personal, it is not only difficult to hear real feedback, it can make work a hostile place to be day in and day out. When it gets to that point, get your bags packed and start looking for an exit strategy.


Finding the right balance of personal involvement in performance reviews is what makes a great manager. Find that balance and you will be adored by your direct reports. Tipping too far either way, and you run the risk of the performance review conversation doing more harm than good. And one final point, avoid delivering performance reviews in the bathroom. That’s just plain wrong on so many levels…


When performance reviews become unpleasant surprises

When it comes to performance reviews, perhaps nothing can be more frustrating than to be “surprised” during the conversation. However, before we go much further down the path, it is only fair that I share  my personal bias against virtually all surprises. Admittedly, I’m not a lover of surprises, and if you don’t believe me, you can ask my wife. She’s learned the hard way that “surprise birthday parties” are my own version of a personal nightmare. I’d much rather go to the dentist than have a surprise party thrown on my behalf (usually complete with blindfolds, unknown destinations, and mystery companions). Oooh… I just shudder at the thought. With the dentist at least you know what’s coming. And frankly, performance reviews should be more like going to the dentist for a check-up than walking into a surprise party. And like going to the dentist for a check-up, both parties should have a pretty clear idea of how it’s going to go. There may be a cavity here, or a tooth to watch there, but all in all, you should leave with all of your teeth intact. No big surprises.

Consider David’s story of his performance review turning from a routine dentist check-up into the equivalent of a surprise party from Hell.

Surprise! Your bonus is considerably less than what I promised you

David is a rock star at work. Whatever he touches turns to gold. It is no surprise that he is heavily recruited wherever he goes. And so, that is how David landed his current role working for a boutique real estate management firm. He was heavily pursued for nearly a year until David finally agreed to come on board. However, there was one big sticking point before David joined the firm. Because of the firm’s size, they were not able to match David’s last salary. As a compromise, they promised David a significant bonus if he met all of his goals at the end of the year to compensate for his reduced salary. But this was no ordinary bonus. At the end of the day, David’s bonus was going to equal nearly half of his annual income.

David hit the ground running from day one. The firm, wanting to see what David could do (and perhaps trying to make it difficult for David to hit his goals at the end of the year) gave David its most distressed and troubled properties. In amazing fashion, David turned each and every one of those properties around. He exceeded every measurable goal laid out for him and made other positive contributions that are difficult to measure. He built great relationships with his co-workers and began nurturing and grooming the younger employees at the firm. David was the firm’s All-Star after his first year.

When the time for his performance review rolled around, David wasn’t nervous or concerned. In fact, he expected the conversation to go without any issues. He had hit all of his goals that had been agreed upon to trigger his bonus. As David expected, his manager raved on his performance. Phrases like “no one in this firm has ever achieved what you have… you have received scores that are unheard of here … and this was just your first year!” peppered the entire review. And then came time for the grand finale. David’s manager unveiled the bonus and, drum roll, it was 80% less than what had been promised to David.

David was angry, offended, unappreciated, and heart-broken. But remember, David is a rock star for a reason. Despite the unpleasant surprise that was thrust on him, David handled the situation masterfully. First, David maintained his composure throughout the meeting. He asked for clarification, reminded his boss of the promises made and tried to understand why things had not played out like they were supposed to. He did not yell and scream nor did he reach across the table and strangle his boss (although, he wanted to desperately). When no resolution was reached, David did a second brilliant move. He called a meeting with his boss and his boss’ boss. In the meeting explained his case, communicated the promises made and came prepared to show all of his results. In the end, David received his full bonus.

However, there were consequences to the surprise review David received. David’s view of the whole event is that his boss was trying to keep expenses down so he gambled to see if he could get David to receive a lower bonus. This move resulted in David no longer trusting or respecting his boss. Second, and most importantly, David does not possess the same commitment and passion for the firm that he once had. If another offer comes along, as I’m sure it will, David will likely make a move.

Making the performance review conversation like a trip to the dentist

There are plenty of other “surprises” that happen in performance reviews. From suddenly being told that you are dangerously close to being fired, to being informed that the promotion that was promised to you isn’t going to happen after all despite your hard work. Believe me, I’ve heard some surprises that would make your head spin. So what can you do? Simple. Whether you are the boss or the employee, there is equal responsibility on both sides to check in quarterly and review progress and promises. Is everyone brushing and flossing like they are supposed to? How are things looking? Are we still on track to get that “clean bill of health” we discussed at the beginning of the year? In other words, make sure that expectations on both ends are clear and shared. Everything from what success needs to look like to the promises on what one gets when those goals are reached. Check in quarterly to ensure nothing has changed.

Whether you like surprises in your life or not is up to you. Personally, I can’t stand them. I don’t like my birthdays, vacations and other “fun” activities to be smattered with too many blindfolds, unknown destinations, and mystery companions. Regardless of your view of surprises, I think we can agree that surprises at work rarely turn out well. Work hard to keep surprises in your performance review to a minimum and hopefully, it can feel more like that routine visit to the dentist than the surprise party with just you and all of your “ex’s.” Yuck.


When performance reviews become political

Years ago, I was a young manager working for a large global financial services company. During my time there, the economy plummeted into a recession (sound familiar?). As a result, raises were few and far between. As a youthful and naive manager I had plenty of ambition and more than my fair share of luck. In fact, during my tenure, the organization went through several rounds of layoffs.  Somehow I survived, but in the midst of all of the chaos and slashing, all of my bosses were let go. When the dust had settled, I was the most senior person in my department. A scary thought. But I somehow held everything together and we didn’t miss a beat that year.

Then comes performance review time. In typical fashion, my boss asked me to first complete my self evaluation with the plan that she would then evaluate me separately and we would compare notes. After hours of analyzing myself and my performance, thoughtfully choosing each word and then second guessing myself, completing revision after revision, I finally completed my performance review. And not so bad if I do say so myself! I naturally had areas to improve (I wasn’t very organized nor was I particularly good at getting to the office first thing in the morning), but despite all of that, I had steadied the department together during a tough time. I gave myself a few pats on the back and got ready for the review.

The Conversation

As soon as the meeting started, it became clear to me that my manager had hardly looked at my review let alone do a review of me herself (that’s a whole other dysfunction… stay tuned). As we move through each category, she would make commentary on my self-assessment and if she agreed with my overall thoughts, she would sign off on it. And so it went, until we got to the category “Communication.” For that category, I gave myself a 5. If there is one thing I pride myself on, it is my ability to communicate effectively (after all, I teach upwards of 500 graduate students every year on that very topic – management and leadership communication in the workplace). I’m no slouch when it comes to communication. However, that 5 stopped my manager in her tracks. She looked at my score and slowly lifted her gaze towards me. After a long pause, she said, “you know, you are really good at communicating – both inside the office as well as with our many customers and clients. I can’t think of one thing you could be doing differently or better. No one in this organization deserves a 5 more than you, but I can’t give you a 5.” I looked at her for a few seconds in stunned silence.  I kept my composure long enough to force out a response, “I don’t understand. According to you, I’m a 5 in that area. So, what’s holding you back from giving me a 5?” She responded, “if I give you a 5 on this, I have to give you a raise. And there are strict guidelines in place that prevent us from giving anyone a raise right now. So, while you earned a 5 and you deserve a 5, you’ll have to settle for a 4. And that goes for any other 5’s we may encounter in your review.”

So, in essence, I ended up with a “meets expectations” review. Not because that’s what I earned, but because that was what I was permitted to receive (I suppose it would have been o.k. for me to receive much worse). I vowed in that moment, to never invest the same effort in a performance review until I knew up front what the politics were going into that conversation. Not only did I leave feeling de-motivated and unappreciated, I left with the belief that any extra effort I gave in the upcoming year would suffer the same fate – as one friend of mine calls it a “meets” (short for meets expectations). What was the point of working that hard when in the end, politics would simply assign me a “meets?” So, what can you do if you find yourself looking down the barrel of politics come performance review time?

Avoiding Politics as the Employee

Here are some good pre-performance review conversations you need to have with your manager:

  • Prior to filling out your performance review, ask your manager about any constraints regarding what you are permitted to receive (salary, scores, etc…). This will help you know where reality ends and politics begin.
  • Ask your manger if he or she has an issue with a member of his / her team “standing out” from the rest. Some managers will use the line “if I give you this score, then it will cause problems with everyone else.” Reminds me of the line from the movie The Incredibles “if everyone is special, than no one is.” Get a gauge if “meets” is the standard your manager likes to give… regardless.
  • Cut to the chase – if you prefer a more direct approach, ask your manager “is this performance review process here truly about performance or is it more of a political process that we have to go through every year? I’m just trying to get a gauge on how much personal investment I should make in the process. I don’t want to end up disappointed in the end.”

Avoiding Politics as the Manager

If you are the manager, here are some things you can do:

  • If you believe the performance review process in your organization really is a political exercise, DON’T PRETEND IT’S NOT. Pretending it is fair when it’s not will hurt your credibility as a manager. You would be better off telling each of your employees up front what he /she can expect, what constraints are in place, etc…
  • Given you have the time (and not 20+ employees), take each employee “out to lunch” and have a real and honest performance review. Politics always exist in the four walls of our workplace so leave work and really talk about what they accomplished and where they can improve. They will respect you for your honesty and your personal investment in them.

Don’t let politics get the best of what could be a powerful conversation. Be honest, real, and open – all the things that politicians hate – and you’ll win in the end.


“Performance Reviews”

Performance reviews. Need I say more? There is nothing as dysfunctional and as predictable as the annual performance review. From vagueness to politics, from personal attacks to overall managerial disinterest, performance reviews are inherently nasty and rarely done well. Bob Sutton, a professor at Stanford University, has a wonderful perspective on performance reviews. To quote Bob, “if performance reviews were a drug, they would not be FDA approved… About half the time performance goes up after a performance review conversation and about half the time performance goes down.”

Whether you are a manager and have the responsibility to conduct performance reviews with your folks, or you are on the receiving end of a performance review conversation (or both), knowing how to manage that conversation is a tricky and critical task to both your effectiveness as well as your happiness. Amongst other topics, we’ll be covering:

  • What are some of the most dysfunctional ways that performance reviews are commonly delivered?
  • How do you deal with a performance review conversation that has turned unhealthy and unproductive?
  • If you are a manager, how can you ensure that you are doing all you can to make the performance review process healthy and productive?

Do you have a performance review story you are willing to share? Send me your stories of your experiences with “less than healthy” performance reviews and I promise to protect the innocent (and guilty).

And in case you want an additional teaser to the month, here’s a radio segment I did recently on performance reviews. Who knows, maybe at the end of the month when we’ve covered this dysfunction thoroughly we’ll rate each other on how we did and see if our ratings match up. Oh, I can’t wait…

Performance Reviews. Always Dysfunctional.