A performance review typically occurs once a year and feel like a post-mortem. That’s because the focus is on the past. What happened? What went wrong? Where did the employee fall short? Sure, they sometimes celebrate what went right, but more often, they are designed to point out areas of improvement. Some companies even refuse to ever give the highest mark, theorizing that no one can ever achieve perfection. (Kind of like what happens at most Olympic games.)

Why wouldn’t a performance review be painful then? A study led by Dr Satoris Culbertson found that many employees believe performance evaluations are unfair. He theorized that because employees feel the process is unfair,  their job dissatisfaction grew and they showed less commitment to the organization.

Morally bankrupt

This conclusion was backed up by a colleague of mine who conducted interviews at a multi-national manufacturing organization. Employees throughout the organization found performance reviews to be time-consuming and brought little positive benefit to their own development or to plan for the coming year.

My colleague met with senior leaders and referred to their performance review process as “morally bankrupt.” The leaders were stunned, and silent (which made my colleague briefly nervous.) The leadership team decided not to allow my colleague to do any further work…unfortunate because they truly needed the help. However, their reaction is understandable.

Every team player deserves to know how they are doing, but given the universal dissatisfaction with most discussions like these, consider re-wording these opportunities as “Contribution Reviews” and try these steps instead.

1. Don’t just look at performance

Look into how the player is living out citizenship and company values.  Look at the “what”–the extent to which they deliver on expectations) but also the “how,” (the extent to which they model your companies values and behaviours, i.e. do they treat others with respect all the time?)  Including the “how” also opens the door to deeper discussions about the employee’s alignment with company values.

2. Keep it relevant

Gather feedback from people (and even clients or customers) the employee works with regularly.  Do they deliver on goals AND treat others well in the process? Data from the various people this player interacts with, on ALL levels, can provide a much more accurate picture of their contributions over time. Include THEM in the questions–if they were evaluating themselves, what would they say?

3. Have these discussions more frequently

Once-a-year feedback is not very helpful. Once-a-month is better. You don’t have to make each meeting some formal “filling out of a form.” Just have a conversation about their progress, document it, and determine action steps and opportunities for recognition.

4. Let them feel heard

Make sure the contribution discussion be two-way. Give the employee the time to give feedback on what is and isn’t working well in the working relationship with YOU.

Giving and receiving performance feedback need not be the anxiety-inducing, painful process so many organizations have made it. It can be a great opportunity for all the team to learn how to contribute more effectively, give and receive respect, and move entire companies in a positive direction.  What changes do you need to make to YOUR process now?

This article was updated in March 2022

S. Chris Edmonds is a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He shares insights on organizational culture, servant leadership, employee engagement, and workplace inspiration.

He writes books and articles and records podcasts.

In his free time, he’s a working musician with the Brian Raine band in Denver, CO.