It’s not much use being told in July, that the presentation you did the previous August wasn’t up to par.

Dawn Metcalfe is the MD of PDSi, a Dubai based firm that helps individuals and teams get even better at what they do through training and coaching. Author of Managing the Matrix and HardTalk, a certified training programme dealing with the difficult conversations we face every day, Dawn writes and speaks regularly about the people aspect of work.

Pretty much everybody hates performance reviews. If you ask the average employee or boss to describe them you’ll hear words like “useless”, “time-consuming” and “bureaucratic” and when you look at how they’re done in most organizations, that’s not surprising.

Perhaps because of this they often happen late and involve a lot of prodding and reminding on the part of, depending on the individuals involved, either the manager, the employee or HR. This, in turn, makes the process even more fraught and useless.

Some organizations hate these reviews so much that they’ve actually stopped doing them. They have decided that it’s not worthwhile spending all that time and energy completing a bureaucratic exercise that doesn’t, in any case, seem to make a real difference to performance. And they’re right.

But surely people need to have their performance reviewed? Well, yes. The organization needs to know how well people are doing and the individuals themselves are, we know, often desperate for feedback.

Feed me feedback

In fact, research suggests that not only do 65% of employees want more feedback but those organizations where individuals do hear how they are doing see almost 15% lower turnover. This is even, despite the rumors, true of millennials who have been given more feedback over their lives than pretty much any generation yet seen.

Knowing how well you are doing and what you have to do to improve is a basic human desire. But the average performance review happens once or maybe twice annually and if you work for a company that really takes them seriously, four times a year.

In other words, these reviews don’t happen often enough to make them worthwhile: it’s not much use being told, in July, that the presentation you did the previous August wasn’t up to par and that you need to improve  your ability to tell a coherent story to senior people!

Nobody cares!

So it’s not surprising that performance reviews are widely derided and despised. And here’s a secret you may not know: Nobody (sensible) really cares about the performance review process. They’re not interested in seeing employees complete a multi-part, detailed review of what’s been done in the previous months or year.  

Even HR doesn’t care. Really. The process serves no purpose other than to reassure those who aren’t in the room that something good is happening i.e. that the managers are having the conversation with the people they are responsible for.

But the performance review doesn’t even accomplish that. It’s just the best way we’ve come up with of trying to ensure that employees get some kind of regular feedback because many employees are desperate to know how they’re doing and most bosses don’t give enough feedback or the right kind.

According to a study cited in Harvard Business Review, a full 72% of employees believe their performance would improve if their manager gave them more feedback by which they mean corrective or negative feedback and 57% of employees prefer corrective feedback to praise!

No more Mr. Nice Guy

Surely managers know that managing people means giving candid feedback? Of course, they do but they also find this stressful and difficult. They want to be seen as “nice” and, unfortunately for many organizations and individuals this translates into avoiding the difficult conversations or “HardTalk” that would actually improve performance and reduce stress over time. 

They take the short-term decision to avoid the risk of upsetting the other person by letting them know the gaps in their performance rather than the long-term view of seeing feedback, even or especially corrective feedback, for what it is i.e. a gift to the individual.

Our research carried out here in the Middle East, suggests that instead of having these conversations, people instead resort to hinting around the topic, gossiping behind the person’s back or even transferring the individual rather than telling them the truth and giving them the opportunity to change and grown.

I don’t believe managers are being deliberately lazy but rather they have never been taught how to give feedback effectively and in a way that improves rather than destroys relationships. And this is also borne out by the research.

Time to talk the talk

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg encourages her people to have “hard conversations” believing these to be at the heart of Facebook’s company culture, and key to Facebook’s ability in avoiding the fate of Sun Microsystems, according to Carolyn Everson, vice president of global marketing solutions at Facebook. 

She believes that the reason Sun and other previously invincible giants weren’t willing to have difficult conversations because “They thought it was too limiting, or too time-consuming or too political, or it wasn’t their job.” 

Facebook does still have formal reviews but these are based on much more frequent feedback given and taken regularly by all employees.

So you can get rid of performance reviews but you need to be doing something else instead—encouraging and equipping your people to have the HardTalk needed to see improved performance, increased transparency and improved relationships. Managers get paid more because it’s difficult. 

The role is challenging; you’re dealing with people’s feelings and futures and so it’s your responsibility to learn these skills and to practice them regularly. Hey, it’s called HardTalk for a reason!