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Improving Performance

Are performance reviews the best way to improve individual performance at work?

Traditionally, employers conduct annual or more frequent ‘performance reviews’ as a way of managing employees’ performance and aiming to develop individuals to perform better at work.  However, it is questionable how effective these reviews are because they do not only rely on the quality of the framework used but also on the effectiveness of the process conducted by line managers.  Clearly, there are many social, interpersonal and political factors at play, which inevitably creep in to the review process.  These factors can have a significant impact on the usefulness and reliability of the performance review outcomes.  Jisoo Ock’s, Rice University, Texas, study highlights some of the identified difficulties linked to performance reviews:

“Supervisors and co-workers may have a difficult time transitioning from being inspirers, motivators or even friends to being judicial evaluators of employees.  Regardless of the nature of the organization, it is no surprise that raters  will often tread carefully in ways that avoid negativity affecting their long-term relationships with those people whose performance they have to rate.”

As in any situation, quality feedback is key to improvement, organisations may fare better by providing regular and formative feedback on employee performance.  Evidence-base indicates that feedback is the most important factor in improving educational performance and the same rings true regarding performance at work.  Feedback that occurs naturally as part of everyday interaction is effective at improving performance because it is unthreatening as an on-going process, rather than an evaluation which occurs at the end of the process or project as a terminal review.  Essentially, effective feedback as part of the process provides on-going guidance of improving performance and this method is successfully used in business and sports coaching, where an individual would be told where they were performing unsuccessfully and what they needed to do to improve performance.  Whitmore, a business coaching guru for improved performance, defined coaching as unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance.  It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them”.  The same principles when applied to continuous feedback on performance at work could be more effective to improving individual performance and productivity than traditional performance reviews.

This is not a novel approach to improving performance and its roots can be traced to ancient times.  It resonates with Socrates who used questions and sequences of questions (Socratic questioning) to make people review their thinking and arrive at different conclusions.  It is this type of ‘dialogic interaction’ (Alexander, 2006; Freeman and Lewis, 1998) that gives opportunities for feedback which can be very effective to improving performance.    

If businesses are really committed to developing their work-force, perhaps it is time to review their processes of evaluating performance to assess how effective they are in developing people, bearing in mind that on-going quality feedback and opportunities for reflection based on self-evaluation are key factors to improving individual performance.

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