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About Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman
Johanna consults, speaks, and writes about managing product development. She helps managers and leaders do reasonable things that work. You can read more of her writings at jrothman.com.

Performance Reviews Are Not Useful; Feedback Is

I have received some wonderful feedback from some of my managers. Back when I was a young engineer, one of my managers gave me the feedback at an annual review that I didn’t quite finish my projects.

“Oh, you mean on the project I just finished last week?” I wanted to know if it was just that one. I thought I could go back and finish it.

“No, I mean the one 9 months ago, the one 6 months ago, the one 3 months ago, and the one last week,” my boss said.

I became angry. “Okay, I understand why you saved last week’s project for my performance review. That’s okay. Why on earth did you “save” my feedback for the other three projects?? I could have fixed them!”

He shrugged. “I thought I was supposed to wait for the performance review.”

“Don’t wait that long!” I told him. I vowed that when I became a manager, I would never surprise people with feedback.

I now know about finishing projects. As I said, it was great feedback.

I’ve also received feedback about how I needed to let people on a project come to me with bad news. That was really helpful, and I didn’t receive it at a performance review, thank goodness. That would have been way too late. I was able to change my behavior.

When I became a manager, I had to write performance evaluations for my staff. I didn’t like it, but I did it. I thought it was crazy, because, even though we weren’t agile back then, the people worked in cross-functional teams where the people on the teams knew more about what “my” people did than I did. Yes, even though I had one-on-ones. Yes, even though I asked everyone for a list of accomplishments in advance. But, it was the way it was. Even I thought I couldn’t buck city hall.

But now, agile has blown the idea of performance evaluations wide open. And ranking people? Oh my.

I one worked in an organization where a new VP wanted to rank everyone in the Engineering organization, all 80 people. I thought he wasn’t serious, but he was. He wanted to rank everyone from 1 to 80. Us directors had to take an entire day to do this. What was he going to do with the ranking? Cut the bottom 10%. This was serious.

I asked him, “Who’s going to rank us?”

He answered, “I will.”

I asked, “Based on what information?” He’d been there a week.

He replied. “I have my sources.”

Yeah, I bet he did.

The results of that ranking exercise? He managed to take a team of directors who had worked together well before that day, and make us a group of individuals. We were out for ourselves, because this was a zero-sum game.

At the end, no one was happy. Everyone was unhappy with the ranking, with the process, with everything about the day. This was no way to run an organization where people have to work together.

I’ve been a consultant for almost 20 years now. I have not received a formal performance review in that time. I’ve received plenty of feedback. Even when I haven’t enjoyed the feedback, I have liked the fact that I have received it.

And, that is the topic of this month’s management myth, Management Myth 25: Performance Reviews Are Useful.

Remember, I was inside organizations for almost 20 years. I received fewer than 15 performance reviews. Somehow, my bosses never quite got around to them. They hated doing them. I know that one of my bosses wrote them with help of Scotch; he admitted it.

Feedback is useful. Performance reviews? Not so much.

P.S. I know there is a comment on that article already. I am writing a response. The comment deserves more than an off-hand reply.

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2 Comments on "Performance Reviews Are Not Useful; Feedback Is"

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I Agree with you. Feedback is way more efficient and has more value than the sacred cow, the Performance Review.

Those are just a way of legitimizing all those shady and obscure under the table decisions made to decide ones future in the organization.

They are way over rated. Definitely a myth.

Johanna Rothman

Hi Litch, yup! Performance reviews are a way of reinforcing a manager’s opinions. Ick!