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.