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Part 2: Ditching performance appraisals. Introducing frequent performance conversations.

Updated: Jan 25, 2020

Welcome back to the second post in a two-article series on performance management and the dreaded performance appraisal. In the first article we discussed the two primary reasons we bother with performance management: 1) it drives business performance and 2) it’s a key strategy to how we recognize and reward employees.

As I mentioned, I’m not convinced that the long-lasting practice of traditional performance appraisals is the right approach. I've not found that the once-per-year discussion has been an ideal way to drive, improve or correct productivity and overall performance. So, we’re going to talk about a new approach. It’s still performance management, but it’s centered on the employee + leader conversation. It’s quick to prepare and builds throughout the year to show performance and behavior trends.

Doesn't it seem like for a couple months of the year, we do nothing but write, deliver or receive performance appraisals? Here's how many of us leaders go about it...

  • Agonize over the writing, so it takes longer than it should.

  • Sometimes seek counsel from a talent person to justify a particular rating or work in feedback that happened earlier this year, but hadn't yet been discussed. Oh great.

  • Host an awkward, brief discussion with the employee.

Why? Why do we torture ourselves over and over and over? Because it's worth it, right? Telling our employees how they’re doing is the right leadership thing to do and they need to know. Right.

Don your employee hat for a minute. Let’s consider the psychological impact on us, as employees, of the annual PA and how the process itself supports or detracts from our performance. Performance appraisal conversations are loaded conversations, especially when conducted once annually. I use the time to justify how much work I’ve done throughout the year and try to keep an open mind for my leader’s opinion of how I’ve done. Maybe my leader asked me for a self-appraisal. I’ve written a thesis on how awesome my year was. Case in point, I was in a demo the other day for a shiny new talent system. One of the sales reps stated during the PA portion of the demo that she creates slides documenting her achievements for the year to share with her leader, and that she uses the tool to document her accomplishments throughout the year so that when she is asked for a self-appraisal, she can quickly collate and report on her fantastic year. My eyes were seeing an innovative system while my ears were hearing an antiquated process of managing performance. Huh? It’s not the fancy new talent systems that are going to solve this one, Friends. It’s you and me, creating a shift from outdated PA processes to something simple, effective and conversation-based.

Ok back to the PA discussion—now I’m sitting with my boss in an awkward recap of my year. Maybe I get a bite of helpful, constructive feedback offered in the dry, tasteless feedback sandwich (you know, the tidbit of critical feedback sandwiched between two slices of Texas toast-sized positivity). Then my leader shares my rating. Doesn’t really matter what he’s said before delivery of the rating, because I was so anxious to hear it. And now that he's given me my rating, my brain is busy trying to process the rating, make a mental calculation of what that means for my income, and wait – did he just tell me that peers have been complaining about my lack of collaboration? In one one-hour performance conversation we expect employees to:

  • digest an overall summary of their year—positive or negative

  • take note of focus areas

  • be grateful for the positive feedback

  • and oh right, give our leader feedback about how she can better support us

In one hour of approximately 2,000 work hours throughout the year, we’re supposed to process all that. No wonder this is one of the most nerve-wracking discussions of our professional lives. Why have we not remedied it yet?!?

Our brains are not wired to process this conversation well. I mentioned neuroscience in the first article. David Rock is a guru in this space, and has published interesting work on how our brains process the work environment, and specifically relevant to this discussion, the impact of performance appraisals on our psyche. In articles he penned in 2008[i] and 2009[ii], Rock shared that our brains are biologically programmed to process conversations such as performance reviews as threats. We process threats with the primitive part of our brain that evokes the fight or flight response. He explains that “the mere phrase ‘Can I give you some advice?’ puts people on the defensive…” Cortisol kicks in and boy oh boy, here comes the anxiety. Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone. So, not only am I trying to process the rating I just received, its financial impact and unpack the feedback sandwich, I’m trying to do that without losing my cool or shutting down. Rock explains that the threat response uses up oxygen and glucose (energy) from the brain that we otherwise would be using to process thoughts. It also tends to inhibit the subtle signals required for insight or those “ah ha” moments. Our analytical thinking, creativity and problem solving are diminished during one of the most important discussions of the year. Likely our boss thinks she’s just leaning in to support us by offering feedback or direction, and we subconsciously go on the defensive. Splendid.

We shall not despair! For there is good news! And the solution is one that can flex to just about any performance management process or timeline that you currently use.

Let’s talk about— conversations. Specifically, open performance conversations hosted multiple times throughout the year. The goal of this new approach helps us with a couple of things.

  1. It moves us away from the threat response stimuli by relaxing the conversation and creating dual-ownership in it.

  2. It creates space for an ongoing dialogue on performance.

Consider a quarterly performance conversation. Employees talk with their bosses four times a year about how they are doing, and have an opportunity to make course corrections before a year-end rating. I’ve found that bosses are more likely to offer tough feedback and provide an accurate trend rating if they feel that it’s not branding the whole year.


As an example for you to nosh, let me share with you how we have shifted our thinking at Southwest. After considerable research, several years ago we piloted the concept of quarterly performance conversations with a few small departments, including People (aka HR), because I usually subject us to new ideas before asking the company to comply. Yes, they are a patient people. We started fresh, and did not use the PA application we had in place. It is an unwieldy system, not easy for users or administrators, and frankly created a negative miasma over the whole PA experience. Instead, we developed a simple one-page PDF template for the whole year broken into four quarters.

  • Each quarter had a rating.

  • We asked both employees and leaders to take a role in the conversation.

  • We instituted quarterly priorities versus annual goals, and offered learning sessions for all parties involved.

It was quite simple and not high tech.

What we found was that most leaders appreciated the forced brevity of the form and the need to share with their employees a summary of their achievements, progress and work for the quarter. Performance challenges were address before they became issues, and if they did, whelp, we had quarterly trends showing where feedback and coaching were offered. Both leaders and employees reported that priorities refreshed quarterly were more relevant than annual goals that often became outdated by the end of the year.

Did we have a handful of leaders who preferred the traditional method? Of course. Change is hard, yo. And they liked writing books at year-end.

We’ve since implemented “check-ins,” to about half of the teams at our headquarters location with plans to include all employees not included in a collective bargaining agreement in 2020. It’s been such a win that groups not in the pilot have engaged check-in performance conversations to augment the traditional year-end process. In my book, department leaders asking for the new process is a win for Talent Folk!

You can do this

Consider how you might re-swizzle your performance management process or make a few updates to an existing process to incorporate more frequent performance discussions. I submit that even if you’re part of a larger performance management system, introducing a more frequent cadence, even if *gasp* not tracked or tracked outside of a system, will better support business results, offer more accurate reward and recognition input and minimize the psychological impacts we face with the dreaded annual appraisal.

I’m on a mission to redirect Darth Vader’s Imperial March to the upbeat cantina scene music[iii] when a leader sends an appointment for a performance conversation. It’s time for this conversation to not be a pain for employees, leaders or us, Talent Folk. As a recap, don’t forget the primary purpose of performance management conversations – business productivity. Let’s keep them simple and happening more frequently, Friends.

Talent Development Insights

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[i] Rock,David. “SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. Neuroleadership Journal. Issue One 2008. accessed April 2019

[ii] Rock, David. “Managing with the Brain in Mind.” Strategy + business, issue 56, Autumn 2009. accessed April 2019

[iii] It’s another Star Wars reference.


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