Performance reviews: more interaction, but with what kind of managers?

It now seems to be a given that more frequent, shorter and less formal interaction with a manager is more beneficial for an employee than the traditional formal half-yearly or annual appraisal interviews.

However, having implemented and practiced it, it’s not always a panacea, or rather, it doesn’t work by magic.

You need to take a few precautions when designing the system and, above all, ask yourself what the role of the manager is in the business.

Fewer review interviews, more feedback

I’m not going to dwell on the limitations of traditional appraisal interviews, because everyone knows them.

Their formalism does not allow for fruitful conversation, they are sometimes unidirectional, serve more to evaluate than to set in motion a process of progress, and their frequency robs them of any managerial interest.

Too far apart to be able to address real problem situations while there’s still time, they are unsatisfactory for both employee and manager, if the latter is interested in this aspect of his, which is not always the case.

This is the limitation of this approach, as well as of engagement barometers: the dissatisfied employee has often left before having had time to express himself, and if he’s still there, he’s had months to brood over his unhappiness. And when it’s the employee who’s the problem, we often wait too long to give him or her areas for improvement or initiate the necessary training.

What’s more, we’re blinded by the recent context. We overweight what’s happened in the last few weeks compared with the rest of the year. To the employee’s detriment as well as to his or her benefit.

So we came up with the idea of shorter, more frequent interactions, sometimes as a replacement for annual appraisal interviews, sometimes as a complement, because we also have to take into account legal obligations which differ from country to country.

I recently came across an article promoting this way of doing things, which inspired a number of remarks drawn from my own experience.

Each week, a team member answers four simple questions: what they loved about last week; what they loathed about last week; what their priorities are for this week; and what help they need from their team leader. They send the answers to these to their team leader, and this constitutes both a “request” for a response, and also the starting-point for a conversation. The team member and team leader then find some time to talk, and the team leader asks questions to understand what made the difference last week for the team member (good or bad), to make sure they understand the thinking behind the priorities the team member has identified, and to figure out how to provide whatever help the team member needs. And when this is done, the two of them end the conversation if they’re in a hurry, or else talk about whatever else seems important, mainly at the behest of the team member.

It’s a very simple practice to put in place, all the more so as technology plays a major role in facilitating it. This can be done by e-mail, by a form, or by a robot asking questions in a chat, and it does indeed give rhythm and intensity to the relationship between manager and employee. You could even call it managerial agility.

However, the approach is not without its drawbacks, and it’s important to be aware of these in order to anticipate their causes. In fact, the idea here is not to dissuade you from going in this direction – because I think it’s the best one – but to prepare the ground well to avoid disappointing beginnings that would be a blow to the approach.

Don’t mix personal and business matters

I didn’t have this point in mind, but since the article mentions it, it triggered a signal in my head.

The author talks about a series of questions where, in my opinion, two subjects are mixed up: the operational (how things are going in your missions) and the personal (how you’re doing, how you feel). In my opinion, the two should be treated differently.

As far as operational issues are concerned, my experience is that they need to be tackled collectively, because that’s the definition of a team: you never work alone, and one person’s problems are often linked to those of others, and the solution often has to be collective. Dealing with them individually and then having to convene meetings to address them collectively is therefore a waste of time. What’s more, as these are not personal problems, they can be raised in front of other team members who, even when they are not involved, will often learn something of use to them later on.

So, in my opinion, the best way to deal with these issues is to hold a meeting at the start of the week, where, in the space of an hour, each member of the team quickly discusses his or her assessment of the past week, the challenges for the week ahead, and any problems. This way, the whole team is informed of what’s going on, and problems are dealt with individually and collectively.

As for personal issues, I think they should be addressed individually at a fixed weekly meeting, or optionally if there’s nothing to say. Be wary, however, of optional meetings with certain employees who will avoid subjects out of laziness or shyness, and let problematic situations fester without raising them until a point of no return is reached, when with a little digging they could have been identified in conversation.

So, but this is just my experience, two systems coexisted.

For operational issues, an email was sent on Friday evening and a group meeting was held on Monday morning.

For personal matters, an individual half-hour meeting every week, which could be shortened or extended if necessary. To prepare this meeting, information could be collected digitally, as mentioned above, but I had abandoned this option for the reasons I’ll mention below.

At one point I added a third, optional, meeting time. I set up a daily 15-minute meeting every morning, by videoconference (because of remote work and the fact that people were also in different cities), along the lines of the stand-up meetings held by agile teams. Everyone was free to come or not, but they could be sure that, despite busy agendas, there was a slot where I was available every morning. Some came when they had a problem, one came every morning to chat over coffee, some never came (but in that case they couldn’t say that I wasn’t available to listen and help them.

Receiving feedback is good, reading it is better, acting on it is vital.

When it comes to feedbacks, because that’s basically what we’re talking about, there are three conditions for success.

The first is participation.

As far as operational feedback is concerned, it’s fairly straightforward, and given the subject, it’s easy to make it compulsory like reporting, and no one will object.

Personal feedback is more complicated. Some people don’t see the point of it, others don’t have the time, others think it’s pointless and others prefer to talk about it face-to-face. And the first three cases are intimately linked.

This brings us to the second condition, which is to be taken into account.

Imagine an employee who takes the time to give feedback and then realizes at the meeting that it hasn’t been read… he’ll soon stop participating. But that’s not all.

The third condition for winning over employees is action.

It’s good to take feedback on board, but acting on it is even better. There’s nothing more demotivating for an employee than to point out problems or shortcomings, ask for help and receive nothing in return.

This may seem obvious, but it’s better said than done.

I demonstrated this when I set up another approach. As part of our continuous improvement approach, we had set up an alert form to report organizational malfunctions identified by employees in the field, or, on the contrary, good practices or ideas to be generalized.

At the outset, success was more than mixed, and the cause was easy to understand: the feedback was getting stuck at manager level, and nothing was happening. So we decided to escalate everything up to senior management level, with a weekly review and systematic feedback ranging from “this is a normal situation and here’s why” to “we’re going to change things and we’ll meet again in x weeks to debrief”.

From the moment they saw that things were moving, participation soared, a real gold mine for us to improve the way the business operated, sometimes on subjects invisible to management but which had a real impact on the field.

In this section, I referred to an essential point: the role of the manager. Here again, something that seems obvious but, in reality, rarely is. And it’s a fundamental problem in many businesses, with sometimes dramatic consequences.

Sometimes there are managers who want the title but not the role, or sometimes they just don’t have the time.

Manager is a job, not a title

First case: the manager who wanted the title but not the responsibilities.

One of the roles of a manager is to…manage. A manager is someone who makes things happen by solving team problems and helping people to progress individually and collectively. This requires, among other things, time and the ability to listen, but when you don’t feel like listening or helping, it’s obvious that you’ll have plenty of reasons for not finding the time.

Of course, businesses have their share of responsibility in promoting people to management positions solely on the basis of their business performance, without taking into account their managerial skills or their appetite for the job. And since this is often the only way to advance a manager’s career, he reluctantly accepts. In the end, the business loses a competent performer and gains a bad manager.

This was one of the reasons why I had abandoned the digital platform for collecting personal feedback that managers didn’t read, in favor of imposing individual meetings.

Secondly, I developed a management delivery model that listed the business’s expectations of managers in the service of the employee, who was in turn in the service of the customer. This helped to put them in front of their responsibilities in a factual way, to evaluate them accordingly (and if necessary to replace some of them) and to appoint future managers according to the right criteria.

You can’t manage a team like you would lead a herd.

But not all managers fall into the above category: some are simply unable to fulfill the managerial component of their role due to an objective lack of time.

A manager combines a number of roles:

– Sometimes a production role, like the members of his team

– A decision-making and coordinating role

– A team support role

– An employee development role

– A listening role, necessary to the fulfillment of the previous one.

Over the course of a week, all this takes time, a lot of time. And you have to have time, because I’ve noticed two things.

The first is the ever-increasing pressure from businesses on the production dimension, especially in the business services sector but not only. When you have a manager who is expected to be billable 80% or 90% of the time, how do you expect him to find time for the rest?

It all depends, of course, on the size of the team, but the result is well known: not much availability, not much listening, a botched HR part of the role, hasty appraisals, etc.

Some have tried to remedy this by introducing a new role with “People Partners”, “People Managers” or whatever to take charge of the HR part of the role, with the manager concentrating on the operational part. I don’t know what it’s like, putting yourself in the employee’s shoes, to be managed “humanely” by someone you don’t see on a daily basis, whom you hardly know, with whom you have no real relationship, who knows nothing about your daily life, what you go through, how things work, or even your job, but personally it doesn’t look good to me.

Then there’s the size of the team. In theory, the ideal team size is around 7 people, so that the manager can really do his job. Personally, I once inherited an interim team in addition to my own, and we went up to 15. I might as well tell you that at that stage there was no longer any way of holding weekly interviews, that follow-up was more distant, that responsiveness was also more limited, and that the quality of management as a whole declined, in my opinion.

So when I hear about teams of 20, 30 or more people, I sincerely wonder about the quality of management and the attention employees receive.

I know that a lot of businesses complain about the investment of their managers and the quality of their management, but when they give their managers huge teams to manage, with just a few hours a week to do so, or both, they only reap what they sow.

Now, I’m not saying that the two biases I’ve just mentioned don’t have a certain logic, or even a certain rationality. I’m simply saying that you have to be consistent with your objectives: you can have a manager who manages or a manager who is highly charged with productive tasks, but not both. The corollary is that you get the managers you deserve.


Multiplying interactions between managers and employees, giving rhythm and intensity to the managerial relationship, is an essential thing, but it requires a few pre-requisites.

One of these is that the manager must have the time and attention required to do his properly.

We have to recognize that the same businesses that insist that their managers devote more time and more often to their employees do everything in their power, on the other hand, to ensure that managers don’t have the bandwidth or attention required to do so.

Without this, you can multiply digital and non-digital approaches, but nothing will work.

Feedback and evaluation are not just systems, processes and tools; they’re above all a culture that requires us to think coherently. When it’s a gimmick applied to an inappropriate culture, it rarely has any effect, and you’ll deduce that it doesn’t work whereas people just don’t have the time to make it work.

Image : performance review by baranq via Shutterstock.

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

Recent posts