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One More Time: Stop Doing Annual Performance Reviews

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Scott Lazenby
April 24, 2019

A couple years ago in this space, Thomas Miller contributed a column titled, “The Underbelly of Performance Reviews.” He concludes his essay with these words:

So we stifle the dread and the anger about the process hoping that the outcome will brighten our reputation rather than cast us in shadow. But when reporting anonymously if we like evaluation, the echoing answer is NOooo!

In over four decades of city management, I’ve made repeated attempts at effective performance evaluation systems, but never with any success. Employees say they do appreciate open and honest communication with their supervisor and peers, but don’t care much for the annual review process, no matter the kind of lipstick we put on it. It occurred to me that the only reason I was beating my head against this wall was that some HR professionals and attorneys wanted to make sure we kept dirt on each employee in their personnel file in case we ever wanted to fire them.

But it also dawned on me that, of the hundreds of city employees I’ve worked with, the vast majority were good folks, where the main challenge was how to keep them in the organization. For those that didn’t fall in that category—and I can count them on one hand—it was a simple matter to begin building a paper trail at the first sign that things were going wrong.

Ken Miller, author of Extreme Government Makeover, urges that if we do nothing else, we should stop doing annual performance reviews. So do Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins in Abolishing Performance Appraisals. One of the best developed arguments for the harm that performance reviews cause is hammered home by UCLA’s Samuel Culbert, a PhD in clinical psychology, in his Get Rid of the Performance Review!

Dumping the annual performance review charade is liberating, but it can remind us that many of our supervisors lack skill as coaches and mentors. The solution is to provide training or to make some organizational changes (i.e., the coach doesn’t always need to be the supervisor), rather than to compensate through some one-size-fits-all paperwork process.

Along these lines, our organization has had some success with annual performance previews as prescribed by Samuel Culbert. The supervisor and employee take turns asking each other the following questions: What are you getting from me that you like and find helpful?  What are you getting from me that impedes your effectiveness and you would like to have stopped?  What are you not getting from me that you think would enhance your effectiveness? In hindsight, what things in the last few months do you wish you had done differently? What have you learned from that?

After that give-and-take, the supervisor leads the discussion with these questions: What modifications, if any, are needed for us to work better together? What are some key goals for the coming year that we agree on? What are your short term and long term professional/career interests, and how can I help with them?

Note: the intent is an open dialog. Nothing goes in a personnel file. There are no gotchas. At most, there might be some documentation of agreed-upon goals. The point is that the supervisor and employee function as a team, and it is the responsibility of both to make the team as effective as possible.

Not every supervisor is comfortable with open conversations like this, which is odd since the supervisor holds all the power in the relationship. Training in crucial conversations (see the book by Patterson et al) can help here. But the experience from those who have tried the performance preview process has been very positive, both from the perspective of the supervisor and of the employee.

Again, the bottom line is this: get rid of the annual performance review process, whether or not you choose to replace it with something else.


Scott Lazenby, Ph.D., is city manager of the City of Lake Oswego, an adjunct associate professor at Portland State University, and the author of the city management novels Playing With Fire and State of the City. His email is [email protected]

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