What is the right approach to performance reviews?

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Intuitively, most of us know that praising people for what they’ve done well – as opposed to bawling them out for what they’ve done badly – is likely to result in a more motivated, engaged and productive workforce.

But as the report (Strength-based Performance Conversations: an organisational field trial) points out, often our default setting is deficit-oriented. In other words, we focus on what’s gone wrong and how we can fix it, rather than reflecting on successes and how we can learn and build from them. The result, too often, is that performance reviews lead to negative feelings all round.

With the strengths-based approach, the argument is that we are more likely to improve if we gain insight into what we do well, and look for opportunities to apply that success to other activities.

Interestingly, the research found that, for the most part, line managers were open to taking a strengths-based approach. In fact, it often makes for an easier conversation. However, they lacked the confidence – and the insight into what lies behind this approach – to make it happen.

Holistic approaches, which encourage the organisation to bring a strengths-based approach to all its activities, will of course have the greatest impact. But the CIPD research found that even a one-off workshop, designed to equip managers with the skills to have more constructive conversations, helped to kick-start a more positive approach to performance reviews. If nothing else, by shifting the managers’ perception of reviews from time-consuming, box-ticking exercise, to a genuine opportunity to help people reach higher levels of performance by playing to their strengths.

So if HR wants to start a shift, what are the key issues it should be encouraging managers to think about.

Mind your language

Words matter when it comes to appraisals. If managers use negative, critical language, employees are likely to adopt a defensive stance and will leave their performance review feeling downtrodden and disengaged. The CIPD report suggests some useful questions that could feature in a strengths-based appraisal. ‘Tell me about a time at work when you felt at your best, full of life and in flow’, for example, coupled with ‘what were the strengths and capabilities that made this possible?’  HR can support managers in moving towards more constructive appraisals by suggesting appropriate questions and providing templates to guide their conversations while they get used to the new approach.

Adopt a coaching approach

Moving from a directive style of management to a coaching approach can be key in helping bring about a more positive, strengths-based environment. But this isn’t always easy for managers, many of whom see their role as telling people what to do, looking over their shoulder to make sure they do it well, and pulling them up if they don’t. HR’s role is to help managers shift to a more enabling, supportive approach, and to help them see that if they can guide and encourage people to play to their strengths, it will reduce dependency, build the capability of the team and improve productivity. Formal training (or coaching) is probably the most effective way for managers to build their coaching skills, but if budgets are tight, there are plenty of books and on-line resources out there to draw on.

Focus on the future

It’s not uncommon for people to complain that their appraisal was dominated by the one thing they did wrong all year, with all the good that happened barely acknowledged. Encouraging people to think about how they might develop and deploy their strengths in the future is a much more positive approach. HR can support this by looking closely at the organisation’s performance management processes. Do the forms given to managers to fill in encourage them to focus on past performance rather than future potential?  Is the section about developing people’s skills for the future an after-thought at the end, rather than a significant part of the process?  Often small but subtle changes to the way forms and processes are designed can help to drive the right type of behaviour.

Tolerate mistakes

No-one can possibly get it right all the time. But that’s often exactly what we ask of people at work. If they get something wrong, or if a project doesn’t go quite according to plan, the default setting can be to haul people over the coals and ‘punish’ them for their mistakes by rating them poorly in their appraisal or refusing a pay rise or bonus. The trouble with this is that quite apart from making people demotivated and disengaged, it also leads to risk averse environments where innovation and creativity are unlikely to flourish. Of course there will sometimes be occasions when the sequence of events has to be carefully examined or poor performance has to be called out. What HR needs to do, however, is to encourage managers create environments where the occasional slip up or failure is accepted and seen as an opportunity to learn and develop new thinking that can applied going forward.

As the CIPD research concluded, a strength-based approach needs to be applied in the context of the organisation – and the individuals involved. However, if HR is able to influence this culture by encouraging the top team to role model a positive approach and allocate resource to ongoing training and support for managers, the overall effect on performance will be greater. But if that’s not possible, even baby steps in the right direction will start to make a difference.

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