Still Taking Aim at Performance Reviews

Roughly three years have passed since the publication of Samuel A. Culbert’s Get Rid of the Performance Review. Culbert, a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, received a decent amount of press around his book when it first came out, no doubt thanks to performance reviews’ many shortcomings. (Indeed, last year he contributed a byline on this topic to, in which he summed up his opinion about performance reviews in one word: “bogus.”)

Last week, I had a chance to witness first-hand just how passionate Culbert is about this subject during a keynote he delivered at the i4cp’s annual conference in Scottsdale, Ariz.

RatingsCulbert called performance reviews “old and dishonest” and chided HR leaders for permitting “command-and-control managers, people who don’t know beans about human nature, to continue to put this bankrupt management practice to use.”

“They provide comparisons of people who shouldn’t be compared,” he said. “They allow bad managers to scare employees. They prevent good managers from hearing what employees truly think. Their mere presence destroys trust.”

Culbert pointed out that “performance reviews make it harder for employees to own up to their deficiencies” and “create a culture of fear and intimidation.”

“Bosses have to have something bad to say about the employees or they themselves won’t be seen as objective,” he said. “There’s no evidence that people who receive average or lower [scores believe] they were assessed objectively.” No one wants to be called average, he added.

Culbert spent the bulk of the time detailing to the group the many ways in which performance reviews are broken. (To be sure, his list goes on and on.) But he also devoted a slice of his allotted time to laying out what he’d put in their place: performance “previews.” In his book, Culbert describes previews as …

… an ongoing dialogue between boss and subordinate, where each of them is responsible for asking the other: What can I do to make us work together better and get the results we’re both on the hook for? The focus isn’t on the past and how one person screwed up, but on making the system work better in the future.”

“Let’s have those conversations,” he told the i4cp audience. “Talk about situations when they occur, not later.”

I suspect not everyone in the room agreed with Culbert’s extreme approach to performance reviews; that they represent a practice that should be put out of its “misery.”  But judging from the reaction of the crowd, both the speaker and his audience seemed very much in agreement that employers need to find a better way (hopefully sooner rather than later).