If you wanted any more evidence that traditional performance appraisal methods are (at best) counter-productive, then new research from Kansas State University is for you. No-one, it seems, likes or benefits from a negative performance review and a critical performance evaluation can have a negative effect on any employee, even those who are normally motivated to learn and improve.
A team led by Satoris Culbertson, assistant professor of management, surveyed more than 200 employees who had just completed performance reviews at a large southern university and compared their experiences to their goal orientations.
The sample group were divided into learning goal-oriented, performance-prove goal-oriented and performance-avoid goal-oriented people.
The learning goal-oriented group like to learn for the sake of learning and will pursue challenges despite setbacks. Performance-prove goal-oriented people want to prove that they have competence to perform a job, while performance-avoid goal-oriented people want to avoid looking foolish.
The researchers hypothesized that that the two types of performance-oriented people would only be satisfied with performance appraisals in which they received positive feedback because negative feedback would make them look bad. But they also thought that learning goal-oriented individuals would be satisfied with an appraisal in which they received negative feedback because they would see criticism as a learning opportunity.
"Surprisingly, we found that learning-oriented people were just as dissatisfied with an appraisal that had negative feedback as the performance-oriented people were," Culbertson said.
"Nobody likes to get negative feedback, even those individuals who aren't trying to prove anything to others, but instead are just trying to learn as much as possible."
The fact that this doesn't appear to be the case is further evidence that performance appraisals can adversely affect motivation, commitment and performance, Culbertson said, and reinforces the argument that annual performance reviews ought to be replaced by an ongoing performance appraisal process.
Negative feedback, she said, is not the same as constructive feedback and managers should always try to point out areas that need improvement rather than focusing on what someone is doing wrong.
Similarly, number-based performance reviews are a minefield because people view numbers differently. A manager might give an employee a 4 out of 5, seeing this as positive feedback, but the employee might see this as negative if he or she is striving for a 5 out of 5.
"This is where our words are really powerful," Culbertson said. "We want to make sure we are conveying to employees whether we are giving a good evaluation or describing something that needs to improve."
Managers should also avoid the "sandwich" approach whereby they give positive feedback, then give negative feedback and finish with positive feedback, something many employees, she argues, find contrived and phoney.
"It is not so much that the performance review needs to be abolished, but we need to fix what is broken," Culbertson added. "Instead of limiting ourselves to formal performance appraisals conducted once or twice a year, we need to think about performance management as a system that is linked with the strategy of the entire organization."
"We can actually make the most out of the system," she added, "but if we are only going to have once-a-year evaluations, we shouldn't expect it to work."