How Annual (Staff) Performance Reviews Should Work (Maybe?)

Failures, Assists, and Irrelevancy

March 18, 2014

This will be the first year in a while that I do not have any direct reports, and therefore will not be conducting annual performance reviews.

Is this a process that you participate in?

Are you asked to evaluate your direct reports?  

I am not an expert on the employee review process, and I understand that many people work very hard to make this process as valuable, fair, and productive as possible.

Over the years, however, my misgivings about the entire annual review process have increased.  

(And to be very clear, I am talking about staff annual reviews here  - not faculty - as the process is very different).

I wonder about the alignment of standard HR annual review processes with what we know about learning and performance.

I worry that annual reviews put too much emphasis on individual achievement, and not enough on team accomplishments.

I question the degree to which we over-emphasize our own achievements and under-emphasize the role that external forces (and chance) plays in successes and failures.

I am curious about the time-bias of the annual review, with too much of an emphasis on the past (especially the recent past), and not enough energy spent on looking forward.

I hope that every person who has ever given (or received) a performance review has read Carol Dweck’s writing on The Growth Mindset.

I’m sure that I’m not alone in these concerns.  The annual review process is probably one of those endeavors where everyone thinks themselves an expert (like driving), and where each of us judges our own ability to create a superior system as above average.   

So please take my suggestions with some healthy skepticism.   I realize that I may not know what I’m talking about.

That said, how would I structure the annual performance review?  (And how would you?)

I think that I’d emphasize 3 categories - elements of work that don’t normally (in my experience) make it into the annual review methodology:

1.  Failures:

I’d like to reward academic staff for their failures. Not enough failures would mean a worse annual review.

If we are not failing then we are not trying to do hard things. Why spend our days doing easy things? The hard things are the ones that matter.

2.  Assists:

The best way to judge performance may be the degree to which we make other people look good. The best employees are those that make everyone else around them better. The people who work to assist and support colleagues and stakeholders.   

We all know people who we feel are those that really make the university run. They seldom get lots of attention, nor do they seek it. They should get the best performance reviews.

This approach would also favor a team-based review process.   We know that the best performing teams are diverse teams. Teams with a range of skills, temperaments, and backgrounds.  Shouldn’t our annual review process reflect this knowledge?

3.  Irrelevancy:

The final metric that I’d like to see emphasized in performance reviews is the degree to which a given employee succeeded in making his or her job irrelevant.

Can we all find a way to make our jobs disappear?

This does not mean that the work will stop. Only that maybe the work can be done in a more efficient way, with perhaps less people, freeing us up to move on to tackle other challenges.

This approach, of course, cannot work for every job and for every person.  I’m mostly thinking of middle management.  

This approach also must be coupled with a strong degree of confidence that making a particular job irrelevant will not mean that we no longer have a job.  We need to be confident that we will continue to be employed, even rewarded, if we downsize our current role and move on to taking on other types of work.   

That sort of social contract between employer and employee is probably fraying as quickly in academia as in every other industry.  

But it is worth keeping in mind that if we wish our institutions to innovate then we will need to create optimum conditions in which employees can transition from old tasks to new tasks.

How do you think that the annual review process should be designed?

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Joshua Kim

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