Preparing for Real-Time Performance Reviews

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Is the annual performance review on its way out? While it’s hard to say conclusively, one thing is sure: More companies are taking a fresh look at how they provide feedback and align their corporate goals with the work professionals do day-to-day. This is especially true within newer tech companies, where managers can often take a more flexible approach and younger workers expect to receive feedback a lot more often than once a year.

In large part, the change is being driven by the demands of Millennials. Whereas Baby Boomers often approach work with an attitude of “tell me what you need to get done,” Millennials want their work life to double as a learning experience. “For that to happen, they need more feedback,” said Wendy Pat Fong, director of customer success and operations at 7Geese, a Vancouver-based maker of social performance management tools. “They’ll leave if they don’t get it.”

Companies are responding to that Millennial need for feedback. In 2012, for example, Adobe replaced its annual performance reviews with a system it calls “Check In.” Unlike the traditional, highly regimented review process, Check In allows managers a lot of leeway in how they approach performance conversations, as long as they follow certain principles: Meetings must take place at least quarterly, the manager must set clear expectations, and the employee must provide feedback, as well.

In practice, many Adobe managers are having Check In conversations monthly or even weekly. In a blog post, Donna Morris, Adobe’s senior vice president of people & places, credited Check In with improving the company’s retention.

What It Means for You

Within the broader tech industry, all this means a number of changes are afoot:

  • Feedback won’t be an annual thing anymore. As more companies put new performance management programs in place, employees can expect to get feedback much more frequently, maybe even in real-time. At some businesses, conversations about performance may happen as soon as a project wraps up or a meeting concludes.
  • Feedback will come from people besides your manager. Many tools facilitate feedback from all parts of an organization, including your peers and managers from other teams or departments. With these tools in place, users can solicit feedback on their own, so employees won’t have to rely on another person’s whims to get comments. Lest you think you’re being placed under a microscope, however, feedback from outside your chain of command is often kept private: Your manager doesn’t see it and it won’t be considered as a part of your salary review.
  • There’ll be fewer excuses for everyone: One of the drivers of these changes is the idea that a professional’s work should closely align with the company’s business goals. In light of that, managers find themselves under increasing pressure to make sure you understand what you’re expected to accomplish and how it fits into the big picture. At the same time, you’ll be expected to ask more questions and provide your own feedback on the company’s business and your manager’s approach.
  • Conversations still matter: No matter what tools your employer might introduce to the process, your face-to-face discussions remain hugely important. As Fong observed: “The [tools are] only about 20 percent of all this.”

How to Succeed

These are big changes, and they require you to take a different approach to managing feedback. Some tips:

  • Participate: Have opinions about your team, department, and company, and share them during conversations with your manager. Productive conversations aren’t one-sided.
  • Take advantage of the process: Whatever program your company puts in place, use it in ways that can truly help you improve. Be proactive about asking your peers for feedback, and don’t limit yourself to those who you think will say nice things; you can learn a lot from someone who disagreed with you on some aspect of a project. On the flip side, when someone asks you to provide feedback, respond in a timely manner.
  • Learn to listen: Even in the best of circumstances, listening to feedback can be awkward. Go into conversations with the assumption that your manager intends to share helpful observations, and avoid getting defensive.

As feedback develops into an ongoing proposition, each exchange becomes part of a whole, not an end unto itself. The dynamics of performance management are changing to provide more opportunities for professionals to understand and influence their role in the business. “Traditional employee reviews are very manager-initiated,” Fong said. “This is more about the employee owning their performance.”

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