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Who Needs Performance Reviews?

Vivia Chen

July 15, 2010

Fotolia_21935780_XS[1] Here at The American Lawyer, the editorial staff is cowering like rabbits awaiting slaughter at the Guangzhou market. One by one, our colleagues are being called to the glass room. What's going on? It's time for our annual performance reviews!

Okay, so I exaggerate about reporters being frightened bunnies, but we don't relish reviews, either. 

But I'd bet lawyers dread them far more. The stakes are certainly higher. For journalists, the raise (if there is one) is so paltry that it wouldn't cover a lawyer's annual dry cleaning bill. But for lawyers, the review could be worth tens of thousands of dollars in bonus money. At the other extreme, if the raise is small, it could signal that the ax is about to fall. That's particularly true now as firms move away from lockstep compensation to a merit-based system for even associates.

There's a lot of hype and tension surrounding annual reviews, but is all the fuss worth it? And do they ultimately make any difference at all in how people perform?

Experts say reviews are at best meaningless, and at worst destructive. One leading opponent is Samuel  Culbert, a clinical psychologist who teaches at the business school of the University of California, Los Angeles. He writes in The Wall Street Journal:

You can call me "dense," you can call me "iconoclastic," but I see nothing constructive about an annual pay and performance review. It's a mainstream practice that has baffled me for years.

To my way of thinking, a one-side-accountable, boss-administered review is little more than a dysfunctional pretense. It's a negative to corporate performance, an obstacle to straight-talk relationships, and a prime cause of low morale at work. Even the mere knowledge that such an event will take place damages daily communications and teamwork.

Moreover, the boss and employee come to the review with different mind-sets:

The boss wants to discuss where performance needs to be improved, while the subordinate is focused on such small issues as compensation, job progression, and career advancement. The boss is thinking about missed opportunities, skill limitations, and relationships that could use enhancing, while the subordinate wants to put a best foot forward, believing he or she is negotiating pay.

The result, adds Culbert, is that boss and employee are "talking past each other," and "the discussion accomplishes nothing. More likely, it creates tensions that carry over to their everyday relationships."

Another gripe Culbert has is the "predetermined checklist" of performance measures. He says "bosses apply the same rating scale to people with different functions. . . . As a result, bosses reduce their global sentiments to a set of metrics that captures the unique qualities of neither the person nor the job."

If you think business managers are bad at this, lawyers surely are worse. "Firms tend to be behind clients in sophisticated talent management," says psychologist and career coach Ellen Ostrow. "In law firms, associates feel terrorized, mainly because they don't know what to expect. Partners generally don't give them feedback [during the year], so they are surprised when they get a negative review." Moreover, Ostrow says reviews tend to be based on personal impressions that are "fraught with gender and race bias."

So what can associates do if they get a bad review? "I'd go back to the partner who reviewed you and say, 'I didn't realize you were so disappointed with my writing or that project, and I want to know how to improve,'" suggests Ostrow. "Even if a partner seems unapproachable, be smart and talk to them. Remember, they are human beings."

So far, the best argument I've heard for the annual review is that it helps employers set the stage to fire someone. Now there's an uplifting thought that promotes trust, not to mention oodles of warm feelings.

I'm hardly an expert, but I can't believe many people think reviews really help performance. Yet, I don't think anyone will have the gumption to pull the plug on this practice. It's been enshrined as a must-do--like taking out the garbage, flossing your teeth, and getting a colonoscopy. I'd argue, however, that those activities yield more tangible results.

How do you feel after a review: elated, angry, confused, numb? Does anyone ever come out of it thinking, "Wow, I learned so much; I really have a map to the future now!"? 

Bosses--won't you weigh in on this too?

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected].

Photo: Andrey Bandurenko / Fotolia.com


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Perfect article, perfect comments, thank you for same.

Annual performnce reviews in all industries, perhaps especially law, arose from the clamoring need of the sixties (my) generation for "feedback." The exponential growth of the HR industry followed, which was given its only appropriately added impetus by the strenghtening of anti-discrimination laws of all kinds, making the workplace - at least in that regard - better for everyone. But performance reviews were an unfortunate by-product of all of this. "Bosses" do them by rote; subordinates generally do not focus on what they say; they form the basis for raises based on performance scores; and everyone is tense and frustrated at performance review time. The real problem is that they are almost like Winston Churchill's definition of democracy -- the worst form of government ever conceived, except for everything else.

First, to answer the question in the headline -- everyone needs performance reviews and feedback. And any other answer is just plain silly. That is, of course, unless you're the sole occupant of a business with no clients, no family and no friends -- indeed, no interaction with others whatsoever.

Second, if you are dreading the annual performance review process, its because you and your organization have made it meaningless and painful.

The fact that folks are bad at giving and receiving performance reviews is not a reason to stop the practice -- it's a reason to do it well. We cannot expect employees (or for that matter service providers like law firms) to exectute very well if they: first, don't understand the manager's (or client's) expectations and second are not told how they are doing and what they need to do to meet and exceed those expectations.

Truly effective perforomance evaluations occur everyday in meaningful, mentoring feedback. An annual review should never be a surprise -- unless, of course one of the parties is truly delusional. They are never truly about the past because the past is precisely that -- and cannot be changed. They use past performance simply as an illustration for either the meeting, failing to meet, or exceeding expectations.

Lawyers in particular have difficulty getting and givng meaningful performance reviews for at least two reasons: first, they just haven't been trained to do them effectively and therefore are inexperienced; and second, becauses as a class we tend to be Introverts (on teh MBTI scale) and therefore find the truly intimate discussions inherent in a meaningful performacne review painful. The answer to both situations is the same -- traning and repetition as opposed to complaining and avoidance.l

So my simple adivce: get over it and just do it! If you're not good at it, listen to the sessions on the fabulous Manager Tools podcasts as to how to give and receive feedback.

Ever since I was introduced to Deming's 14 points years ago, I have seen how performance evaluations are ineffective in enhancing performance in all different types of organizations. There are so many reasons why this happens. If Managers would just take the time to tell their employees what they are doing right or wrong on an ongoing basis, there would be no need for an end of year exercise in futility .

To the extent that reviews focus on mutually established goals and on continuous improvement they can be very useful.

Doing them well takes a lot of time and energy. The performance review process fails far more often on execution than design.

Prof. Culbert may be right, but often, it is associates that want reviews because they want to know what they need to do to advance in the firm. It must be a law-school trait - 'tell me what I need to do to get an A.'
The rub with reviews is that you could praise performance to the max, then when the word "but" is introduced, the reviewee forgets all the praise, and seizes on what is said next. "But, there was that time when that memo to the client was delayed,' 'but some partners think you act like a knowitall' ... What comes after the "but" is all that will be remembered, and it will become the perceived reason for no raise, etc.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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