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The Future is Now: Rethinking Performance Reviews for Sustainable Success


Performance reviews have long been a staple of human resource management and organizational leadership. However, as companies navigate an ever-changing business landscape with new priorities around empowering employees, building trust, and embracing diverse workstyles, the traditional annual performance review is becoming increasingly outdated. Research shows that most employees do not find reviews meaningful or helpful for development, and managers dread the process. Additionally, focusing solely on past performance does little to drive companies toward a future of continuous learning, growth, and collaboration. It is time for organizations to rethink performance reviews and adopt more forward-thinking, employee-centric approaches aligned with modern workplace dynamics and goals.


Today we will examine the research on the limitations of conventional reviews and presents a vision for the future of performance conversations that foster sustainable success for both individuals and companies.


Background: Problems with the Status Quo


Decades of research have shed light on the inherent flaws of conventional performance reviews. Some of the key issues include:


  • Focus on the past instead of the future: Annual reviews only assess what was accomplished in the prior period instead of setting goals and plans for professional growth on an ongoing basis. This backward-looking approach does little to motivate employees or align individual and organizational objectives moving forward (Pulakos et al., 2015).

  • Bias and inaccuracy: Numerous studies show performance ratings are often biased and inaccurately reflect an employee's true contribution. Factors like recency effect, halo effect, and similarity bias tend to cloud ratings (Drake et al., 2015).

  • Lack of meaningful feedback: Most employees perceive reviews as a perfunctory administrative task rather than an opportunity for constructive coaching and development. Feedback tends to be vague, occasional, and not well-received (Foss and Klein, 2016).

  • Stress and disengagement: Both employees and managers experience significant stress and dread associated with formal annual reviews. This undermines motivation, engagement, creativity, and trust in the process (Chen et al., 2015).


Clearly, the status quo is problematic and in need of reinvention to address the business realities of today and develop talent in a sustainable manner. New approaches focusing on the future are emerging, but widespread adoption remains slow due to resistance to change.


A Vision for the Future: Continuous Performance Conversations


To move past the limitations of entrenched annual review systems, forward-thinking companies are experimenting with alternative performance management models centered on continuous performance conversations held throughout the year. Some hallmarks of this vision include:


  • Employee-driven: Conversations are owned and led by employees to foster greater accountability, autonomy, and development self-direction.

  • Future-focused: Discussions emphasize forward progress, growth goals, skill-building opportunities rather than scores or ratings from the past.

  • Continuous process: Regular check-ins replace one-size-fits-all annual events, facilitating ongoing coaching and feedback exchange.

  • Discussion-based: Conversations emphasize discussion of work, challenges, learning over documentation through forms or ratings. Outcomes include actionable development plans not performance ratings.

  • Collaborative nature: Managers coach and empower versus evaluate. Both parties work as partners toward shared organizational objectives.

  • Flexible structure: Process is not rigidly scheduled but conversation frequency and focus adapts based on individual/team needs and circumstances.


This new performance conversation model promotes a culture where development supersedes evaluation as the priority, fostering sustainable employee engagement, organizational agility, and business results over time. Let us explore practical applications of this vision.


Applying the Vision: Two Case Studies


The following case studies from Adobe and Accenture illustrate how leading companies are pioneering continuous performance conversation approaches in their unique organizational contexts.


Adobe's Check-Ins


At global software giant Adobe, managers were required to complete nine-page annual review forms that were time-consuming and demotivating. In 2015, Adobe transitioned to a continuous check-in model called "Check-Ins" led by employees (Lawler et al., 2018).


Key elements include:


  • Employees schedule bi-monthly check-ins with their managers

  • Meetings focus on forward-looking development goals rather than past achievements

  • Checks emphasize discussion over documentation using one-page Goal Plans

  • Topics include progress updates, skill-building, challenges and next steps

  • Recordings of conversations are taken rather than ratings being assigned


Adobe saw review completion time drop from 8 hours to 30 minutes on average. Employee engagement and retention also increased substantially since the switch to the goal-focused, easier process. Adobe's success demonstrates how continuous conversations can streamline operations while boosting development and sustainable performance culture-wide.


Accenture's Career Conversations


Global professional services firm Accenture employs over 500,000 people in 120 countries. To better develop talents at this massive scale, Accenture introduced "Career Conversations" emphasizing employee control and ongoing dialogue (Morgan, 2018). Key attributes:


  • Employees access cloud-based platform to schedule talks with 2-3 advisers (managers, mentors etc.)

  • Talks occur 4 times a year focusing on skills, learning preferences, strengths/weaknesses

  • Employees create customized development roadmaps versus fixed goals/ratings

  • Advisers provide guidance, connections to projects aligned with employee interests/needs

  • Continuous feedback drives next steps versus annual pass/fail reviews


Accenture found employees now explore diverse career paths through dynamic guidance versus rigid structures. This fosters retention of top performers by personalizing development at a massive scale worldwide consistently with Accenture's vision to empower employees as owners of their own careers.


Conclusion


As the case studies demonstrate, performance reviews are ripe for reinvention aligned with modern workplace realities. Continuous performance conversations shift the focus from evaluation to empowerment, engagement and growth - priorities that foster sustainable business success. More companies are innovating processes emphasizing employee ownership, ongoing dialogue and future orientation over annual box-ticking exercises. For organizations willing to reimagine performance management, continuous conversations present a powerful opportunity to build thriving cultures where talent consistently develops to their fullest potential in service of the business for the long haul. The future of sustainable organizational success depends on making continuous conversations the new normal of progressive people management.


References


 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.


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