A New Approach to Performance Reviews

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner

Rather than simply cataloging past behavior, spark passion and purpose by defining what both you and your employees want to achieve in a year. It all starts with creating a vision of success.

If you put together a list of universal management frustrations—the areas where, despite our best systemic intentions, we consistently fall short—offering timely and effective performance reviews would be on almost everyone’s top-ten lists. I honestly can’t remember any organization where the managers have calmly and confidently said that they were always on top of their performance reviews. We all want to be, it’s just that something seems to go repeatedly and regularly awry.

It’s not that managers can’t check the right boxes, sign off on the supervisory stuff, have superficial conversations, date the forms and get them in the personnel files fully filled out and on time with annual grids and scores. It’s not that any of us doubt that giving good feedback is essential to the success of the organization and everyone in it. Every study and book out there shows that staff will thrive on clear expectations and positive reinforcement. It is just that we fall short in taking this tool and turning it into a positive, energizing, uplifting opportunity that will help both the individuals and organizations grow.

That’s why I’m suggesting that we turn the traditional model inside out, to make performance reviews more inspiring, meaningful, thought provoking, positive and rewarding. I propose that you try using visioning—a process by which you create a positive image of the future—to help you and your employees get the most not only out of the reviews but out of the work itself.

As many of you know, I have written about visioning extensively in this column. We use it at Zingerman’s for creating long- and short-term business goals and to help achieve personal goals as well. Here is how I think we can apply it to performance reviews:

1. Have staffers do an inventory of their own strengths and weaknesses.

First, employees write a list of skills, traits and behaviors that are a necessary part of the job they are doing. Ideally, these would match an existing written job description but, in truth, staffers can add any skill that they think is important as well. They give themselves a score on a scale of 0 (low) to 10 (top of the top) in each area. Staffers would then go over the list with their managers and compare observations. The two may or may not agree on each assessment but, at the very least, they’re having a conversation that will inform everything going forward.

2. Help employees create a written image of success.

Our extensive experiences here at Zingerman’s show that the more people put energy into the positive things about their jobs and themselves, the more likely we’ll have the outcomes we are hoping for. So at this point, the idea is to focus on what is working well with employees. This will enable you to build on a base of positive energy and high-quality experiences that will then head employees towards success.

Have staffers start working towards those positive outcomes by writing a draft vision or image of success that is based around their roles at the company—and have it dated six months or a year down the road. The draft is written in the present tense, as if it’s already happened. Remember, this first vision is a starting point, a preferred future that will serve as a foundation on which managers and staff can build their dialogue.

The vision starts like this:

“It’s November 15, 2010. I’m heading home from work, and I’m thinking about all that I’ve achieved in the past 12 months. My managers, coworkers and I all rate my performance of the last year as a ____ on a scale of 0 to 10. On that same scale, I give Zingerman’s a ____ as a place to work.”

Employees then go on to describe why they give and get the scores they list in the first section.

This would include:

How staffers feel about their work.

What new skills they’ve successfully mastered, or at least started to learn.

How they’re now relating to coworkers and customers and how that’s different than it was a year ago.

How much they make, and how much they’ve earned in bonuses.

Truthfully, the vision can include almost anything employees want that they believe is right for them and right for the organization. Employees can also help make their draft effective by rereading the company’s strategic plan and thinking about how their vision would help support that. (And if an employee’s vision doesn’t support the company goals, he or she can think about how to deal with that conflict.)

3. Refine the vision through manager and staffer meetings.

For the vision to be complete there must be consensus between the manager and the staff member. Not only must they agree on what the employee’s vision is going to be, it must also include ways that the manager will help the staffer achieve that vision through classes or other support.

It is likely there will be a series of conversations about what sort of performance changes would be needed and in some cases the differences of opinion and goals could be great. (Perhaps the employee wants a salary that is different from the job he says he wants. Perhaps there is incongruity between the role the employee wants and the way she’s been performing to date.)

In a few cases the gap could be so extreme that the staffer’s vision isn’t compatible with the manager’s vision. Is it bad to have this “conflict?” I don’t think so. To the contrary, it’s actually productive. These differences of view exist whether we acknowledge them or not. And those gaps then provide us with the chance to write a mutually agreed upon vision of how to separate.

4. Create an action plan to achieve the vision.

Once there is agreement, then both parties can map out what they are going to do to get there. The critical point is that the manager and staffer must be sure to set measurable targets and create a list of key action steps with a timeline.

These will include:

What is expected and by when.

What resources are available to help achieve action steps.

How we will know if the expectations are being met.

What the rewards and/or consequences are of meeting/not meeting those expectations.
It is important to write out these expectations and action steps in a document. At Zingerman’s we call it a ‘training passport’ and trainees get it signed off on by an appropriate person each time they successfully complete one element of the passport.

A big part of getting the passport completed—and of achieving the vision—is to create an advisory group that can help staff members succeed. This group is listed on the inside of the passport. Ideally they come from all levels of the organization so that staff members are getting diverse views and support from different sources. Certainly it includes the employees’ managers but also two to four others who would be able to give feedback, encouragement and insight to help staff members successfully arrive at their vision.

It is also critical to schedule regular sessions to check in on the plan to see how things are going, show appreciation for the progress being made and adjust anything that is necessary. These check-ins should be listed in the action plan so the manager and staff member can sign off on them as they work their way through the year. So, for instance, if the vision is a year away, it would make sense that those regular reviews be done quarterly. In the spirit of getting support and gathering input from all involved (as in the old 360 review system) staff members would go to a diverse group (including their support team) to get that feedback.

5. You must believe this is going to work.

All of the above sounds good, but the truth is that it will never come to fruition unless both managers and staffers believe that they’re going to successfully make the vision a reality. If people don’t believe in the future they are agreeing to, it’s just not going to happen. But if they do, if they start with a positive, agreed upon outcome and create a viable plan for that success, I believe it can happen.

Five Dos and Don’ts for Performance Reviews

Keep these things in mind when planning employee evaluations.

1. Don’t use reviews as reprimands. While reviews do serve as a good measure of where things have been with the employee, the key is in using them to inform where you both want to go and what needs to be done differently.

2. Do make sure both parties prepare in advance. Have questions, concerns and objectives ready to discuss before the meeting starts. Managers should plan on sharing overall business goals and reminding staff on how they fit in.

3. Don’t view reviews as simply an exercise in following procedure. By all means we want to cautiously and appropriately follow all legal guidelines and track all key decisions, agreements and issues in writing. But we don’t do the review just to protect ourselves or use it only as an historical document.

4. Do focus on clarity of language and goals. For example, specifically define what “better” looks like or what “earlier” means. Clarify the difference between what is actually expected and other lesser suggestions that the staff member might act on or not as she chooses.

5. Don’t let this be the only time the manager and staffer discuss job performance. Regular and effective communication is a critical component of any good relationship and this one is no exception.