Why Companies Should Suspend Performance Reviews During This Crisis

Jathan Janove, J.D. By Jathan Janove, J.D. April 20, 2020
woman working from home

​If you have a performance review system or practice, I encourage you to suspend it during the coronavirus pandemic, not only because the current work upheaval may make the review less than accurate or useful, but also for psychological safety.

Readers of my column know I'm no fan of formalistic performance reviews. In my view, they've contributed to a condition in which the mere word "feedback" triggers the fight-or-flight reflex. If you say to me, "Jathan, I'd like to give you some feedback on your most recent column," even if the feedback is positive, I'm instantly in threat-recognition mode. What's coming? Should I defend myself or run away?

Let's not add to people's already uniquely high anxieties. Suspend the performance review. Employees have more than enough to worry about.

'Feedforward' for Direct Reports

You might argue, "Jathan, in our business, there's still a great demand for our product. And yet working conditions are far from optimal. How do we function if we can't give employees feedback?"

Give them "feedforward." This term is central to Stakeholder Centered Coaching (SCC). It means focusing on what's working and what can be done better. Feedback looks to the past: What did you do, and how well or poorly did you do it? Feedforward looks to the future: What are you doing now that needs to continue, and what should change?

According to SCC co-founder Chris Coffey, "Never underestimate how something small can have a big impact. Simply substituting the word 'feedforward' for 'feedback' can become a tipping point in how you relate to and connect with others."

With a little practice, you can convert any form of feedback into feedforward. Here's an example:

"Sarah, I have some suggestions for going forward. Here are the things you're doing that are working well and should be continued [list them here]. Here's something I think would be helpful if you started doing [give a brief example]. Here's something I think may be getting in the way and should be discontinued [give another brief example]."

Anything of importance relating to an employee's performance, attendance or conduct can be conveyed through feedforward. It's not judgment. It's not criticism. It's enabling employees to succeed. And, in these most unusual times, isn't it gratifying to think we can help our employees think of the future and their ability to succeed?   

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Feedforward for Your Boss

As an executive coach, I've found that employees can use feedforward to manage up. It's possible you may not have a clear understanding of your boss's expectations or how you're doing in relation to them. Perhaps you're now working from home or otherwise having to adapt to unique circumstances.

If you're like most people, you're hesitant to say, "Hi, boss. I'd like some feedback." That's like inviting the snake to strike, the bull to charge or the lioness to take a bite. Yet we all should be responsible for understanding our employer's expectations and working to meet or exceed those expectations. This might be even more important during times when we feel less connected.

Instead of asking for feedback, ask for feedforward. Here's how: "Hi, boss. Have you got any suggestions for how I can step up my game going forward? Is there anything I'm not doing that you think would be useful to start doing? Anything I'm doing that may be getting in the way and should stop? Also, what am I currently doing that's working well and should be continued?"

Now you have the information you need. And you have obtained this information through regular conversation rather than through the typical ritual of forms being completed and numerical ratings being assigned before such discussion occurs.

You will no doubt have the boss's gratitude for making his or her job easier. If you are or ever have been a boss, you probably agree that giving feedback is almost as stressful as receiving it. Feedforward makes the communication stress-free for both giver and receiver. And with this freer flow of communication, we enhance the potential for employees to provide the deliverables their leaders need and want.

Keep It Up After the Pandemic Is Over

When the coronavirus crisis passes, will things go back to normal? Or will there be a new normal? It's too soon to tell. However, for employers willing to suspend the performance review and replace it with feedforward, this could be the new normal.

"Due to the pandemic," said Colleen McManus, SHRM-SCP, and senior HR executive with the state of Arizona, "we are having to approach work differently and often more creatively. This has already yielded new ways for organizations to solve problems. If feedforward is part of our new normal, we keep the dialog and forward-thinking approach going, even if we are all 'back at work.' "

"We should learn that even when we aren't in crisis," said Charlotte Miller, director of HR for the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association, "the traditional feedback process probably decreases, rather than increases, productivity. Certainly, we need to be honest with employees, but let's have an ongoing conversation about what is working and what can be better."

"We encourage frequent dialogues between 'tribe members' [employees] and their coaches [direct supervisors or managers]," said Stan Sewitch, vice president of global organization development at WD-40 Company in San Diego. "They are open discussions about what the tribe member is proud of, what they learned and what their plans are for the future."

Sewitch adds that these conversations create opportunities for employees to ask for guidance or support, as well as to celebrate successes. "During our current status of working from home in all but one office of WD-40 Company around the world, these discussions are even more important. The continuance of frequent coaching interactions is a comfort to our people, an anchor of normalcy that they look forward to even more than they did when we were working in the offices."

Let's retrain and coach managers on how to communicate expectations and inform employees how they're doing in regard to those expectations. Start by banning the word "feedback." And ditch the employee grade-school report card. Express all messages in a constructive, forward-looking way.

Hopefully some good will come from our current crisis. Let this be one of those things.

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