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Bruzzese: Ditch performance reviews for 'previews'

| Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ask employees if they like performance reviews, and chances are at least some of the answers may be unfit for young ears.

Ask Samuel A. Culbert the same question, and while his response may be more civil, it will equally condemn the practice.

In his book, "Get Rid of the Performance Review: How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing - and Focus on What Really Matters," (Business Plus, $24.99), Culbert opens with this salvo about the review process: "This corporate sham is one of the most insidious, most damaging, and yet most ubiquitous of corporate practices. Everybody does it, and almost everyone who's evaluated hates it. It's a pretentious, bogus practice that produces absolutely nothing that any thinking executive should call a corporate plus."

When asked to boil his feelings on performance reviews down to one word, Culbert says they're nothing more than "intimidation."

Culbert contends performance reviews are designed "to protect bad managers on stupid things they do and say and would never get by with at a social event." He further charges that human resource departments support the performance reviews because of the political position it gives them within a company: They become what Culbert calls the "keepers of the dirty little secrets."

"They have all this information on people in their file cabinets, and that gives them power. They know the havoc they cause," he says.

In his stinging indictment of bad managers and manipulative human resource departments, Culbert says plenty of executives provide good management -- and they do not use performance reviews.

Culbert says that instead of a performance review, managers should ask employees how a job should be done and then provide needed feedback, guidance and support to get that task completed. He says that while performance evaluations "are always about grading people down," discussions focused on how to obtain results for the company translates into success for everyone -- the employee, the boss and the business.

"The most important tool a manager has is a trusting relationship. You work to build that with employees. As a manager, you get off your high horse and make yourself accountable to the employee. Quit scoring people on metrics that don't have anything to do with the way someone does a job," Culbert says.

In his book with Lawrence Rout, Culbert argues that performance reviews should be scrapped and replaced with performance previews. These previews, he says, are aimed at fostering an appreciation of the strengths the boss and employee bring to the table.

For example, in these previews, employees would outline what kind of supervision helps them operate most effectively and what kinds of past management practices caused a problem in getting work done.

At the same time, the manager would share with the worker what he or she needs from the employee in order to provide effective management -- and would even share his or her past management goofs and how those were handled.

Culbert says continuing discussions would focus on how the manager and employee could best mesh their talents to achieve positive results for the company. The process helps managers and employee communicate better about what is needed to get the job done.

"It's important for a boss to 'get' an employee -- to understand the unique way that person goes about doing the job, sort of like a mother or father 'gets' a son or daughter," Culbert says.

While Culbert has heard plenty of horror stories about performance reviews -- and many people in management agree they're detrimental -- he knows that it can be hard to get rid of a process ingrained in many corporate cultures. The chances for ditching the practice detested by so many and talking honestly about what is needed by employees to perform better may be even tougher with the difficult job market.

"A bad economy makes everyone scared about their jobs, and it makes it even harder to find out what's on their minds," he says.

Write to Anita Bruzzese c/o: Gannett ContentOne, 7950 Jones Branch Dr., McLean, Va. 22107. For a reply, include a SASE.

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