A Cure For The Dreaded Annual Performance Review

In a Forbes article headlined “Let’s Kill Performance Reviews in 2015,” former Fortune 500 senior vice president of human resources Liz Ryan said, “Performance reviews are the second-worst process in organizations. They are not quite as destructive, expensive and talent repelling as our broken recruiting systems are, but they come close. Every year we shut down our businesses for a month to fill out performance review forms. What a tragic waste! Managers hate them, and so do employees. If we want to save millions of dollars in expensive staff time and focus, we can do away with individual performance reviews altogether. 1

Instead of dreading the “annual review” conversation, imagine how it would feel to have a conversation you are both looking forward to, and one that builds vs. diminishes trust.

A personal dialogue (PD) is not a traditional performance review or evaluation. It is a powerful conversation between the supervisor and the employee that happens at least once a year and is followed up by at least quarterly check-ins.

After two years of enforcing our requirement to have personal dialogues in a large division at Cornell University, our employees began looking forward to them. The main reasons behind this attitude shift were the increase in trust these conversations generated between the supervisor and the employees and the measurable business results. The personal dialogue became a rock-solid cornerstone of a cultural sea change.

It’s important to have a methodology in place that everyone understands and agrees to follow. Both givers and receivers need to learn how the PD works and understand each person’s role and responsibility.

The Personal Dialogue Process

There are three perspectives to the PD process: (1) the employee’s perspective; (2) the employee’s beliefs about the supervisor’s perspective; and (3) the supervisor’s perspective. The second perspective can be a game-changer. It’s insightful to see how accurate or inaccurate the employee’s “reading” is of their supervisor. Individually, the supervisor and the direct report write down the answers to the questions prior to the meeting where they will discuss their answers. They both get valuable information about how much they are or are not on the same page and can course-correct on the spot.

The process for each question goes like this:

  1. The supervisor asks for the employee’s thoughts and listens carefully to the answers without interruption and asks for clarification where needed.
  2. The supervisor asks how the employee thinks he/she (the supervisor) will answer, without interruption, and asks for clarification where needed.
  3. The two parties discuss a and b.
  4. The supervisor then shares her/his thoughts, without interruption, and the employee asks for clarification where needed.
  5. The two parties discuss where they are the same and where they differ. It is not unusual for an employee to have a different view from the supervisor about strengths and areas for improvement. Employees can underestimate their accomplishments and be overly self-critical—and vice versa.
  6. Post-meeting, the supervisor and the employee share their final notes with each other or combine them, so they have the same record of their conversation—including where they agreed and disagreed.
  7. If required, both sign a form for the official “personnel file” that simply says they had the conversation and when, but notes of their meeting do not get filed centrally.

The 10 PD Questions

(all open-ended)

  1. Please note three to five things you have done especially well in your job in the past year.
  2. How did you measure your own performance this year, and what were the results?
  3. Please note three to five things you would like to have accomplished but didn’t. Why? Are any of these a priority for the coming year?
  4. What have you liked most about working here this year?
  5. What have you liked least about working here this year?
  6. What goals and projects are most important to you in the year ahead? How will you know you’ve been successful? Are there any factors—personal, supervisory, or organizational—that might block you from accomplishing your goals?
  7. What skills, education, experiences, or assistance (including from your supervisor) do you think would help you accomplish your goals and increase your job satisfaction?  
  8. What behaviors of yours help you in your interactions with others? What behaviors of yours get in your way in your interactions with others? Please give specific examples of each.
  9. Who are you developing to succeed you in your position, and what is your succession plan? (If this is not relevant to this person’s position, leave it out or replace it with a question that is relevant to the position.)
  10. What has gone well, and what needs to be improved in your relationship with your supervisor? Please be as specific as you can.

Of course, you can adapt the questions to suit your culture and needs, but I caution you not to stray too far from this format if your goal is to have a dialogue instead of an evaluation. The opportunity for a rich and meaningful discussion comes from years of experimenting to arrive at these ten questions.

You’ll notice that while performance is discussed, it is in the context of the employee’s overall experience in the job. It provides a way for the supervisor to demonstrate respect, honors the employee’s dignity, and recognizes the employee’s shared professional partnership by delving into their job, achievements, hopes, disappointments, goals, and needs. Together they create ongoing expectations and metrics for the future. It also gives the supervisor ample opportunity to appreciate and recognize the employee.

If you are still using a ranking system to determine raises and bonuses, it’s probably time to redesign your reward systems. For more on this question, stay tuned.

The Personal Dialogue process truly is the gift that keeps on giving – to you, to your employees, and to your organization. 


[1] Liz Ryan, “Let’s Kill Performance Reviews in 2015,” Forbes, February 19, 2015

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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