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So, You’re Doing Away with Annual Reviews. What Do You Do Instead?

May 7, 2024

Throughout the working world, the traditional performance review system is being reexamined. The speed of business today has accelerated to the point that few teams can wait six months to a year to give/receive feedback. Nor can they take several weeks out of each year to stop and focus on a formal system that, at least for many, doesn’t provide the sort of actionable, helpful feedback that many crave and need to excel. Given these challenges, it’s no wonder organizations are reconsidering.

What is left in the wake?

Despite the challenges associated with traditional performance review systems, choosing to move away from them is not as straightforward as it may seem at first. It’s easy to point out and criticize the faults of the current system. It is far harder to decide what to put in its place. No organization can afford to operate without meaningful, productive feedback occurring in its ranks. While the formality and rigid procedural structure of current performance reviews are part of the problem, they also happen to be the only mechanisms in place to help an organization ensure the feedback is happening at all. Without formal systems, an organization’s assurance of feedback is limited to blind faith.

Leave the bad, take the good

While performance review systems have taken a lot of heat, they do have elements that are have high value to an organization – value that would be missed if they are completely discarded. Much has been made of the fact that they are too infrequent to allow an individual/team to nimbly respond to growth opportunities. Fair enough. There’s no doubt that all organizations need to do everything they can to foster environments where all workers are learning and growing from each other all of the time. But what can get lost in the momentary, day-to-day feedback are the broader themes and patterns that need a more deliberate corrective approach. Everyone in an organization can benefit from periodically sitting down for a broader retrospective review of broad performance themes and a longer-range view of developmental plans.

The two elements of an evolved feedback system

To create an evolved feedback culture, the modern enterprise needs to do two things:

  • First, they need to shed the problematic features of the standard review system while keeping its valuable ones. That means removing the heavy administrative features and centrally defined structure and performance categories that rarely fit all of the roles in an organization and keeping the requirement for more broadly themed, less frequent reviews.
  • Secondly, they need to put in place a culture that encourages and enables high frequency, day-to-day feedback amongst peers and managers.

The culture part is the hardest

Many people get caught up in the vision of a culture where everyone is giving each other constant feedback and continually getting better. What is often forgotten in these discussions is the fact that this vision runs counter to the natural instincts to many. For an individual trying to do his or her job, the idea of either giving or receiving feedback is fraught with risk – risk that can be easily avoided by just doing nothing. Navigating even a seemingly simple feedback conversation is a skill that few have. In sum, there are a lot of cards stacked against this compelling vision of the feedback intensive organization. If you merely put people on a team and give them a goal without any further actions, the chances of this vision spontaneously appearing are startlingly low.

Shifting to a feedback culture

Any organization that is serious about creating a feedback culture is going to need to open two fronts. First, they will need to train everyone in their organization – not just people managers, everyone – on how to give and receive feedback. They must learn to adopt the right mindsets and then learn and practice the skills needed to help their colleagues grow. But given the gravitational pull toward the status quo, this will not be enough. Organizations will also need to provide ongoing support, tie feedback to their values, and hold everyone accountable. Together, these two measures will not only ensure that everyone is capable of giving feedback, they will create an environment in which it is safe to do so and help everyone internalize the idea that it is an expectation.

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