Performance Reviews Are Making Us Cry. We Might Not Like the Cure
Everyone dreads the annual performance review. But has one ever left you in tears?
For some workers, the annual meeting with their manager is an emotionally scarring exercise in humiliation that can push them to tears—or even quitting, a new survey from Adobe finds. In a sample of 1,500 office workers, 22 percent admitted to having cried after a review. Nearly as many said they'd quit.
More men said they'd cried than women. More men said they had quit, too.
"The traditional review is based on rating and ranking, and there is an element of subjectivity. You're giving it your all, and someone is going to put a label on you," said Donna Morris, executive vice president of employee experience at Adobe Systems Inc., which in 2012 ditched the annual review for ongoing conversations between managers and employees. "That's very hard for individuals to accept."
Nobody involved in performance reviews likes the process. Managers spend around 20 hours a year on them and consider them time-consuming distractions from their actual work, surveys have found. They also have trouble distilling how employees performed all year long into one annual meeting and end up giving subpar workers the same raises and bonuses as stellar ones.
Many other companies besides Adobe—including Accenture, General Electric, and Gap—have done away with the yearly check-in and numerical rankings and switched to giving employees more regular feedback, which employees say they want. Yet many are confused by the online performance-review systems that offer it.
And more regular feedback doesn't get at the crux of the problem: People are awful at both giving and getting criticism.
"The No. 1 source of anxiety that I hear is fear about it getting emotional, or somebody getting defensive," said Deborah Riegel, the director of learning at the Boda Group, an executive coaching firm. "It takes an emotional toll to deal with the messiness of everything from defensiveness, anger, weeping, and passive-aggressive agreement. That's a lot to deal with."
Most managers want to get the review over as quickly as possible, with as little fallout as possible, says Riegel. They don't take the time to give constructive feedback. They speak in monologues and sandwich criticism in between compliments—strategies that don't quite land with employees.
Employees find the once-a-year assaults on what they imagine to be their character jarring, and they tend to take them too personally.
"A lot of folks have performance-feedback distortion," said Riegel. "They go: 'This must mean I'm a terrible person. Who are you to tell me this? You're not so great, either.'"
Employees tend to get upset when there's a disconnect between how they've evaluated their performance and how their manager has—which might explain why more men cry than women.
Women report higher levels of self-doubt about job performance, whereas studies have found that men overestimate their performance at work. "There is a tendency for men to be overconfident," said Adobe's Morris.
Any blow to one's self-esteem doesn't feel great, even if it's warranted.
Not only do people dislike constructive criticism, but it can also hinder performance, one study has found: Anything an employee perceives as negative resonates more than anything else, and anything useful gets forgotten.
There are a few things employees, managers, and companies can do to minimize the office-bathroom tears when the dreaded annual ritual rolls around.
For managers, Riegel suggests offering more positive feedback, starting with boosting their praise-to-criticism ratio from 2-to-1 to 5-to-1. And none of the feedback given in a review, she says, should include indictments of an employee's character.
Giving feedback more regularly can also help soften the blow. If an employee is truly underperforming, he should know it as it happens, not once a year. "If it comes out like a giant sack of dirty laundry that the person hears only once a year, that is an ineffective review," said Riegel.
As for employees, Riegel suggests they try to "listen without defensiveness" and not take their reviews personally.
"A piece of negative feedback doesn't have to say something about your character, your career possibilities, or your deservedness to live on this earth with other humans," she says.
As for those companies eschewing annual reviews, the shift hasn't fixed all the problems with performance reviews. More feedback in smaller doses can still be time-consuming, and employees don't always find evaluations fair. And companies that ditched numerical ratings have seen declines in worker performance.
It can, however, reduce the shock factor of any criticism, said Morris. "People know where they stand at all times," she said, referring to Adobe's replacement for the annual review process. "If somebody is not performing to the level of expectations of their manager or of themselves, they are able to course-correct."
Or at least, you know, stave off the waterworks.