New year, new review? 

How to make performance reviews and goal-setting more meaningful

There are few things in professional life that can take the oxygen out of a room quite like the prospect of year-end performance reviews and new year goal-setting. Why is that? Many of us are goal-oriented people, after all. We fancy ourselves introspective and eager to learn from our experiences. And yet, the dread. Recently, I’ve gained some insights on this quandary and how to rewire performance reviews.

First, the why. Why have so many of us become review haters? There could be several explanations. The performance review industry may have overly “widgetized” the practice. Some tools are so dedicated to performance review as a scientific pursuit that they have lost sight of the nuance in human effort. A performance review system built on false precision — “do this to produce that” — can feel simplistic and shallow. It might aptly catch quantifiable aspects of work like sales volume, but it will likely not reflect important elements like learning, growth in judgment, or maturation of one’s professional network. So maybe the process doesn’t always ring true or feel complete.

Second is timing. Life happens every day; work evolves constantly. As such, performance review conversations — even periodic ones — can end up feeling stale, like a post-mortem.

Lastly, and sadly, it’s possible that performance review conversations don’t square with our fast-paced, multitasking, screen-juggling work lifestyles. The act of sitting quietly with one’s thoughts, reflecting on what has happened and why, and what we can do differently, seems almost quaint in today’s chaotic headspace.

So what can we do to make performance reviews and goal-setting more meaningful and less dreaded? Here are a few ideas.

  • Reflect more frequently. A valued adviser suggested that I make a habit of spending just three minutes after every important meeting to jot down my impressions of what happened, how it compared to my expectations and what I learned. It’s amazing how much that tiny amount of reflective time can reveal. A simple inbox folder can store insights, proud moments and good news, handy for review time and for a pick-me-up on tough days.
  • Make performance review conversations a regular part of life, not an event. They can be as simple as, “What are you working on?” “What’s working well?” “What’s getting in the way?” These iterative conversations mirror the way work really happens — continuously and ever-changing. They can break a logjam before it turns into a damaging flood. They can also capture the nuance of growth.
  • Create performance goals as a team. Start with a broad question like, “What will need to happen in 2019 for our group to call it a success?” People will have different perspectives based on their roles. Some will be specific to one individual, others will cut across the team. The open conversation will almost always yield revelations and energy that would not have surfaced if each person were cataloging goals in isolation.

Wishing you a productive New Year, and the good sense to reflect on all that you are accomplishing.

Christine Amer Mayer is president of GAR Foundation, which awards grants to 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations in Akron in the areas of education, economic and workforce development, arts and culture, basic needs, and nonprofit sector leadership.