‘Disrupting’ Performance Reviews and sandcastles

*I published this on Linkedin first and it pretty much died a death – apologies if it has popped up for you again.*

The use of the word ‘disruption‘ in HR has reached near epic proportions. It has reached a level of usage that almost makes it the norm, therefore resulting in either a complete victory or a completely non-disruptive level of word appropriation depending on your viewpoint.

It has become, to a degree, shorthand for ‘I can point out what is wrong with things’ which is useful to a degree, but not genuinely disruptive. I’m not saying HR doesn’t need disrupting, but let’s be careful how much we roll up under that banner. Let me give you an example – Performance Appraisals

‘Let’s throw out the appraisal’ sounds pretty disruptive until you realise that disruption only takes place when you can actually suggest what should be created in something’s place. It is far easier to destroy than create. Genuine disruption happens at the point when new opportunities are created, not when old methodology is identified.

I’ve heard ‘let’s throw out the appraisal’ from a host of folk at a host of conferences and I’ve yet to have the following questions answered to my satisfaction by most of them

  • Why didn’t you do it where you worked last? There is a very well known ex HRD doing the rounds saying ‘everyone should throw it out’, but they didn’t manage to do it whilst in role.
  • What are you going to replace it with that isn’t just ‘you know…chatting’?
  • If you do replace it with ‘you know…chatting’ how would that approach be viewed by, for instance, a regulator wanting to you to show you had sufficient controls in place over employee performance?
  • If you are getting rid of ratings then how are you deciding on allocating rewards? If you are doing it based on peer reviews/upvoting etc then how clearly do you understand the impact that will have on people’s behaviour?
  • Yes, you can give me case studies for a few orgs that are doing it, but how do you create the conditions for that to happen in less progressive organisations? That’s the big question everyone is waiting for you to answer.

I know that Performance Appraisals CAN be really rubbish experiences. They can also be constructive, clearly allocated time to talk deeply about people’s careers and ambitions. Some of the most impactful chats I’ve had in my career have been in reviews – that doesn’t mean I haven’t had constructive chats outside of them as well, but there is no doubt that occasionally sitting down and reviewing performance over a period in depth can be useful for spotting trends and development areas.

Just because you shouldn’t save your feedback up for a once a year event, doesn’t mean a once a year event can’t have worth. On Valentine’s Day I attempt to make my wife feel EXTRA special, it doesn’t follow logically that there is no level of caring on the other 364 days.

The difference between a rubbish review and a great one is normally the quality of the manager, not the quality of the process. The process only has to hit a basic level for the manager to be able to get a good level of utility out of it.

HR have a role not to create paperwork that gets in the way, but (and I may sound bizarrely old fashioned) writing stuff down helps people remember and reflect on the conversation. This isn’t the end of the world. The fact that managers don’t appreciate that talking to their team for a bit, agreeing some stuff to work on and writing a short summary of it isn’t an incredible imposition is part of the problem. That isn’t bureaucracy gone mad. That’s a reasonably sensible thing to do.

Instead of attempting to fix the paperwork we would do well to work out why we still can’t recruit/train/inspire/equip managers well enough so that we can trust them to sit in a room with someone else for a bit without it seeming like a chore, rather than an opportunity. Ironically most of the calls for us to focus on the paperwork less are in fact still focusing on the paperwork itself, like that is heart of the problems we face.

  • Maybe the incentives are all wrong?
  • Maybe the comms are all wrong?
  • Maybe the culture is all wrong?
  • Maybe the way we train people is all wrong?
  • Maybe you need to focus more on managerial capability when you recruit?
  • Maybe you need to focus more on identifying people who care about managing people when you recruit?

One idea that I’d love to see an organisation embrace is focusing on different motivational triggers to encourage completion. Why not try giving money to charity for each form returned – it fundamentally changes the dynamic from ‘because HR need it’ to ‘if I do it then it will make a difference’. It gives social worth to the activity. If you do try that at your organisation then please let me know the results.

But don’t just tell me you think we shouldn’t do reviews and expect me to think that is being disruptive. That’s too easy to be valuable.

It’s like knocking down a sandcastle, telling me you could build a better one and then walking away. It doesn’t matter how much flair was involved in your kick – you still haven’t created anything. You’ve destroyed, not disrupted.

The person who built the first sandcastle – and is now further down the beach trying to work out how to build a bigger one. They are being disruptive.

If you think I am talking about you when I say the word is employed too readily – but you know that you are doing good, constructive, pragmatic things to make people’s lives better – then you can rest assured that I’m not talking about you.

I’d like to thank the excellent Richard Westney and Simon Heath for helping me shape my thinking earlier in the week. Apparently that conversation stemmed from one with Neil Usher… Please note – I’ve probably used appraisal/review interchangeably in this post. It was for the sake of simplicity, rather than anything else.

5 thoughts on “‘Disrupting’ Performance Reviews and sandcastles

  1. The word disruption is used in HR about as much as Robert Plant used to sing the word “Baby” in the average Led Zeppelin song and I agree that, along with engagement, over use of the word “devalues” the currency.

    Speaking personally, I’ve always enjoyed my appraisals (even if they were not always glowing) and a key determinant in whether they are enjoyable and useful is in the preparation on both sides. I’ve been lucky to have some great boss and don’t fit into the stereotype of “I hate my boss”. It’s always useful to gain a sense of progress in life and where you need to develop on an occasional basis.

    That said, whenever I’ve asked large groups of HR people if they enjoy their appraisals at CIPD events, the resounding answer is “no”. So the question becomes “Why do you think others would enjoy them then?”

    I think the most problematical area is in joining up what is essentially a Herzberg “satisfier” (appraisal) with a “dissatisfier” (performance bonuses). This remains an area for reform in many organisations. It’s something I write about in Punk Rock HR, shortly coming up for it’s 2nd edition.

    There, I managed to write this without using the word disruption more than once.


  2. Peter, “The word disruption is used in HR about as much as Robert Plant used to sing the word “Baby” in the average Led Zeppelin song…” is the funniest thing I’ve read in a while. Thank you!

    David, agreed. The (il)logic I hear goes something like this: People need (but don’t want) feedback. Many managers will only give in-depth feedback at gunpoint or threat from HR. Giving feedback poorly and only once a year isn’t enough, so let’s remove the formal feedback and replace it with ongoing informal feedback that people could do right now without HR, but we can’t convince anyone to give.

    It would almost seem better to pull the intense pressure off of the once a year conversation and make the feedback more meaningful, relevant, and useful by requiring some sort of formal feedback at least once a quarter, maybe every two months.

    But that’s not disruptively sexy. Just useful.


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