If you want to be the best and grow your business, not only do you have to hire and reward the best … you must either develop or remove the rest. It’s that simple. Toward this end, you might be surprised to learn that traditional, so-called “tried-and-true” performance management methods fail. One top offender is the ubiquitous and erroneously exalted Performance Review.
According to leadership expert and executive coach Roxi Bahar Hewertson, CEO of Highland Consulting Group, Inc. and AskRoxi.com, “This HR ‘tool’ will not help your business achieve ANY of its growth results. In fact, leaning on performance reviews to assess staffers can greatly increase the likelihood of achieving the exact opposite results.”
Business leaders and human resource professionals have had a doctrine hammered into them that the annual evaluation or performance review are sufficient to document employee performance. According to Hewertson, who just released her highly anticipated second book, “Hire Right, Fire Right: A Leader’s Guide to Finding and Keeping Your Best People, ” the problem with that logic is it’s short-sighted and often inaccurate.
“There are times when managers need to fire someone, but find that nothing in that person’s ‘personnel file‘ indicates a problem, and too often the opposite is true,” she says.
“This is a chronic problem when supervisors don’t like to (or don’t know how to) deliver ongoing constructive feedback when it’s needed—all year long rather than during one ceremonial yearly event. This is the stuff grievances, arbitrations, and lawsuits are made of and are often legal battles lost by management for good reason. Having an annual performance review isn’t a panacea. It’s more akin to “ using a broken crutch for a broken leg.”
In fact, studies are emerging that further substantiate such performance evaluation shortcomings. A recent U.S. National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health study published in 2020 provides evidence that “performance feedback discussions can have counterproductive effects by increasing the recipient’s self-serving attributions for past performance,” with unintended associated effects including “lower feedback acceptance” and “lower motivation to change.”
Businesses need something far more effective because the “old way” is just not going to help retain your best talent, engage your high potentials, or course-correct below-par performance. Ultimately, the annual performance review wastes management’s time and your organisation’s money while exacerbating opportunity loss. And, “nearly everyone hates to give and receive them,” Hewertson says.
There’s a better way
Hewertson advocates that businesses wholly replace formal performance reviews with a Personal Dialogues (PD) Process. A PD is not a traditional performance evaluation. As Hewertson explains, it is instead a powerful and highly strategic conversation between a supervisor and an employee that happens at least once a year and is followed up by check-ins that happen quarterly at the very least, sometimes even more frequently.
“It’s important to establish a protocol and methodology that managers and employees understand and agree to follow,” she says. “Instead of dreading the ‘annual performance review’ meeting, a PD is a two-way conversation that both parties can look forward to. It’s one that builds, versus diminishes, rapport and trust. The PD is intended to engage both parties in positive ways and add real value.”
Prepping for a productive personal dialogue
Hewertson recommends completing two full annual cycles to allow the process to normalise within your organisation’s culture. “You’ll likely find that both staff and supervisors may be initially resistant to the change, but will begin looking forward to these powerful conversations,” she notes.
“This is, in part, due to the increase in trust and synergy, these conversations generate between the supervisor and the employee as well as the measurable positive business results. The Personal Dialogue process can become a rock-solid cornerstone of dynamic cultural change.”
Hewertson suggests that the PD is scheduled at a mutually convenient time and place, allowing enough time for both parties to consider and answer the PD questions thoroughly thoughtfully. Hewertson has had hundreds of these conversations, sometimes in her office, in the employee’s workspace, in a park, on a boat, at a restaurant and even at a botanical garden.
You might throw up your arms and say, “That’s crazy! I don’t have extended lengths of time to spend with each of my direct reports!”
Consider this: What if you DO NOT spend that time with your employees? You’re already spending some of that time now on performance reviews, and dreading it, with the result likely to be a waste of your time, and theirs. In fact, it’s now known that there is a predictable loss of retention of top performers after traditional performance reviews occur and productivity often goes down among satisfactory employees. Clearly, this is not a smart business strategy.
If that weren’t incentive enough, consider how much time and money your organisation spends recruiting and onboarding staff. Or, if they’ve been with you for a while, add up how much time and money it will cost you to replace even one of them if they leave because they aren’t happy in the job, aren’t feeling heard or valued, aren’t engaged are underperforming and don’t know it … or all of the above?
“Acquiring and retaining talent is a relational, not a transactional, process,” Hewertson says. This is among the fundamental concepts she shares in her book, Hire Right, Fire Right, in which she also defines and explores the ARC employee life cycle: Acquisition (hire right), Retention (nurture right), Closure (fire right).
Hewertson’s book meticulously guides decision-makers through each of these three key interactions relative to new and existing employees. “Leaders need tangible and tactical tools, like the PD process as one example, to help ensure their organisations are well equipped not just to take on these talent management challenges… but actually win on these key fronts. By following this highly strategic system for developing employees, decision-makers can dramatically boost employee retention rates—and revel in the resultant ROI benefits.”
The personal dialogue process
Hewertson’s PD process involves three perspectives: (1) the employee’s perspective; (2) the employee’s beliefs about the supervisor’s perspective; and (3) the supervisor’s perspective. Individually, the supervisor and the direct report write down answers to a series of ten questions (below) before meeting where they will present and discuss their respective answers.
“It’s insightful to see how accurate or inaccurate the employee’s ‘reading’ is of their direct supervisor,” she says. “They both gain valuable insight about how much they are, or are not, on the same page and can respectively course-correct on the spot.”
Hewertson underscores: “This process creates the opportunity for the employee to be heard first.”
“When the supervisor shares his/her views, they both can then compare similarities and/or differences of their perceptions for each question and of each other. This prevents a one-sided monologue, and it reduces the likelihood that employees will say what they think their supervisor wants to hear. Instead, it opens up new topics to explore and keeps assumptions in check. Applying rigour to this conversation creates greater trust and understanding, which is a key ingredient to greater engagement and retention.”
Hewertson recommends ten PD open-ended primary questions which businesses should adapt to suit their own culture and needs, but cautions not to stray too far from them if the goal is to have a dialogue instead of a performance review. These questions offer the opportunity for a rich and meaningful discussion and come from decades of Hewertson’s experimentation and concerted field testing.
The 10 PD Questions (all open-ended)
1. Please note 3-5 things you have done especially well in your job in the past year.
2. How did you measure your own performance this year and what were the results?
3. Please note three to five things you would like to have accomplished but didn’t. Why? Are any of these a priority for the coming year?
4. What have you liked most about working here this year?
5. What have you liked least about working here this year?
6. What goals and projects are most important to you in the year ahead? How will you know you’ve been successful? Are there any factors—personal, supervisory, or organisational—that might block you from accomplishing your goals?
7. What skills, education, experiences, or assistance (including from your supervisor) do you think would help you accomplish your goals and increase your job satisfaction?
8. What behaviours of yours help you in your interactions with others? What behaviours of yours get in your way in your interactions with others? Please give specific examples of each.
9. Who are you developing to succeed in your position, and what is your succession plan? (If this is not relevant to this person’s position, leave out or replace with a question that is relevant to the position.)
10. What has gone well, and what needs to be improved in your relationship with your supervisor? Please be as specific as you can.
“There may be times when a staff member hasn’t shared the whole story about something, or the discussion may have made them think of something they hadn’t initially considered,” Hewertson says.
During the PD, performance is discussed in the employee’s overall experience with the job. But Hewertson also clarifies that the nature of the discussion also provides a way for the supervisor to demonstrate respect, honours the employee’s dignity and recognises the employee’s shared professional partnership by delving into their job and achievements hopes, disappointments, goals and needs.
“During this conversation, ongoing expectations and metrics for the future are agreed upon, with full transparency between both parties,” she notes. “It also gives the supervisor ample opportunity to appreciate and recognise the employee’s positive contributions openly.”
It’s noteworthy that Hewertson’s PD process can be used with any employee, unionised or not, nonexempt or exempt, frontline staff, managers or senior staff. The wording may be adjusted where appropriate for the nature of each employee’s role, but the intent of each question should be kept true.
“While some employees will be entirely satisfied with their status quo, they still have hopes, goals, opinions and things that matter to them in their specific workplace—all of which need to be heard,” Hewertson says.
“You’ll never know what is truly important to your employees or what material insights will arise unless you engage in meaningful conversation and ask the right questions.”
While the PD process requires more planning than traditional performance reviews, time and thought, it has the powerful upsides of increasing employee engagement, building trust and driving positive versus negative ROI for any organisation.
Forbes Business Council Member Merilee Kern, MBA is an internationally-regarded brand analyst, strategist and futurist who reports on noteworthy industry change makers, movers, shakers and innovators across all B2B and B2C categories