Get Rid of the Performance Review

by: Samuel A. Culbert
with Lawrence Rout

This is not a new book. It was published in 2010. But that's never stopped me from reviewing a book before - and this is a book that will resonate with anyone who has ever worked in a company of any size - though particularly if you've worked in a larger corporation.

I have, overall, 2.5 reactions to the book:
  • first, I was practically cheering with agreement for the first half of the book
  • second, I was a bit bored and rather disappointed in the second half of the book
  • and half, I found myself laughing at the author's corporate-speak used to damn corporate-act
So let's start with the first point, where I was cheering Culbert on.

He writes: "It's time to finally put the performance review out of its misery. This corporate sham is one of the most insidious, most damaging, and yet most ubiquitous of corporate activities. Everybody does it, and almost everyone who's evaluated hates it. It's a pretentious, bogus practice that produces absolutely nothing that any thinking executive should call a corporate plus."

Who wouldn't stand up a high-five that statement who's ever lived through a "review?"

He continues, "Fearing the consequences, subordinates (keep that word in your brain storage for later) absorb insults and slights that outside of the office would never be tolerated. They remain silent when managers speak authoritatively on topics where the employee has more expertise, experience, common sense, and basic knowledge. They grin and bear it when managers use the imperial we, as if what is being said is fact and not personal belief and opinion."

Again, if you've ever been forced to sit through a performance review, you will be singing "hallelujah!" (I had a manager once who explained to me very patiently that I was "empowered."  When I asked in what way, he told me, with no irony, that I was "empowered to do what he told me to do.")

And when Culbert makes the excellent point that the worst part of all this is that performance reviews are laughably tied to raises - in such a transparently fraudulent way that only a deluded boss would possibly think anyone didn't see through it - well, readers will be positively shouting for joy. Typically, a department manager has a certain amount of money for raises, and a certain percentage of "average" raises that he or she is supposed to hit.

Now, in a dreamworld, a great manager would have all 10s, all top performers, all people who got the job done well and on time. Why wouldn't we all strive for that? But what Culbert calls the "big bosses" want to see a bell curve - most employees falling in the middle, and a few outliers on either end.

There is even the famous case of one corporation that always had the "bottom ten percent," who were lopped off each year. Even if those bottom ten percent were doing a perfectly credible job. At first blush, this practice of weeding out the worst seems innovative, until you consider that option that perhaps everyone in the department is really doing great work. Why fire them just to fire them?

Culbert cuts a swathe through the sins of the typical performance review for the first few chapters of the book, and he lays the blame mostly at the door of the HR department. In his opinion, HR needed a means by which to justify its existence, and provide itself power. Enter the performance review. In corporations fearful of lawsuits, and enamored of quantitative over qualitative information, HR's perfect solution was to create systems of "rating" employees that managers could say were all numbers based. "I want you to call 25 people a day." "But what if I just call the parents of my kids' school mates?" "Just make sure there are 25 calls out on your phone."

Some metrics make sense. "We need to make $500,000 in order to pay everyone's salary and keep the lights on." Fair enough. But even that metric can be challenged: maybe everyone is making too much money for the market to bear? What if the company chooses to have everyone work from home and gets rid of the office overhead? There are always creative solutions, even to metrics.

But of course, as Culbert notes, companies do need some ways to evaluate how the company is doing, and having it be someone's opinion is very risky. We may not have lived through it, but the stories of the old boys' corporate clubs are well-documented.

So Culbert has, in a few well-written and outspoken chapters, put the standard metrics-based, and review-related-to-raise review in its place: the so-called circular file.

Now the book loses its steam. Culbert drags what could have been one very fine wrap-up chapter on and on, repeating again and again his sound, if a little optimistic replacement idea: the "performance preview."

In this version of evaluating an employee, the "boss" meets with employees frequently, even daily, and often as the moment occurs - in the hallway, at the end of a tough meeting, when an employee is struggling with a problem. In an imaginary world of paternal but not overbearing reasonableness, the boss asks, "What do you need from me that you're not getting? How can we adjust things around here so that you can do you job happily?" and other unlikely questions.

The Big Boss, as Culbert calls him, needs numbers, so it's up to the Boss to help his "Subordinate" get what he needs to make the numbers - and to help the "Subordinate" understand what the Big Boss needs and what the overall goals of the company are, so that he or she can see where he or she fits in.

And this is where my .5 complaint comes in: even as he makes an excellent case for stepping outside the world of corporatese, he uses terms like "subordinate" and "big boss" to refer to the players in the game. He envisions, even praises, a hierarchical environment in which each soldier (Subordinate) knows his place on the field, and does what is expected, knowing that the Big Boss and the Boss will provide him the tools and the assistance he needs to get that job done.

Culbert has very expertly found a flaw in the corporate world, and explained where it came from and why it is toxic. He has suggested one solution to it in the notion of a rolling review, in which employees are always aware of the changing needs of the corporation, and what they can do to help move the proverbial ball forward. What he hasn't done is step completely outside the box of the corporate world and not only examine it from this perspective, but consider all the other possibilities - such as, no boss at all, which many companies are aspiring to with teams in which leaders are fluid from project to project. That's been a popular one lately, but there are many other options.

As smart as he is, I'd love to have had Culbert explore further options, and perhaps acknowledge that even in the large corporate structure, no one size fits all. Maybe you need a completely different shoe.


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