The [Dreaded?] Annual Performance Review

It would seem to be standard practice that evaluations either do not happen or they happen as part of an “annual performance review.”   We seem to have these two – what I will call – extremes.   Either not at all, or once a year in a traumatic major event [well, potentially traumatic].   Even if we are very good at our work and even if we are early at the top of our craft and effective in what we are doing in this organization at this time, an annual performance review can be a bit harrowing. 

What I want to propose is that there has to be a better way.   Performance reviews are essential; we need accountability and we need to find ways and means to be more effective – to learn on the job and get better at what we are already doing relatively well.   We need feed-back; we need to see what others see and have our blindspots or assumptions challenged.   But, once a year?   One year after the fact is too long to find out that something is not working.   We needed to know much of what we might learn in this context – we needed to know it much sooner so that we could take account of the concern or the critique and adjusted accordingly.   When all we do is an annual review, the odds are rather great that we will come out of this exercise feeling like a failure.   Whether intended or not, the negative assessment and feed-back is much more present to us than any affirmation and commendation we might have received.   Ten students might comment on the lecture I gave in a formal feed-back process.   Nine were very positive and affirming and outlined how much the lecture was helpful.  But one was quite negative and critical.  Guess what stays in my mind and memory from that class?  And this is doubly so when it is only once a year. 

So why not make performance review an on-going exercise – not that we are being constantly evaluated and critiqued, but that along the way we ask:  “how is this working?”  We ask students for mid-course input into the teaching learning process.   We meet with our direct reports and at regular intervals provide feedback – commendation as well as concerns along with observations about how we can be most effective together.   This does not mean we are obsessed with our performance.   We are not consumed with the question “what did I do wrong” or “what could I have done better” after every sermon we preach or lecture we give or board meeting that we chair.   But, there is a debrief:  after a board meeting, the president and the chair can have a meeting in which they reflect on “what went well and what did not go so well?”  Along the way, in other words, we do have those step back moments to reflect on effectiveness. 

And this way, if there is an annual performance review, there are no surprises.  We have been tracking together for the last months or the last year and now in this annual pause to reflect on our performance, we have a benchmark conversation, perhaps but there are no surprises.   Any concerns have been raised along the way.   Any commendations, we have been hearing these as well. 

Finally, remember to keep a record.   Perhaps personally you do a spiritual journal entry.   Organizationally, a performance review that is on a benchmark occasion – 100 days or the annual review – should include a one-page summary that is “on file” – a paper trail of the conversation, the exchange, the commendations and concerns that were identified.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.