The perfect performance review

I would like to study a history of the performance review process. It must be a twisted and circuitous development path.

I would like to study a history of the performance review process. It must be a twisted and circuitous development path.

I'm sure everything started out with the best intentions, yet at some point, it all went bad. I picture a labor lawyer, an industrial psychologist, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulator, and a software engineer locked in a room and forced to create an evaluation form that produces useful feedback, can be monitored and measured, and won't get anyone sued.

At just about every place I've ever worked, the performance review process was soundly re-viled. But it's not the fault of my employers. The whole setup for reviews is awful. Employees, who are starved for feedback, wait 12 months for a one-hour session with their boss, hoping to get insightful, honest feedback on career path, work product, and developmental needs.

On the other side are bosses who are sometimes overworked, under enormous pressure, and who must complete 15 or so of these absurdly complex, yet confining and jargon-laden evaluation forms. These managers must also often confront long-simmering personal, political, and performance issues, for which they are woefully unprepared.

The result can be a train wreck of mismatched expectations. The best review session I ever had was with a boss at Nissan who threw away the official evaluation form and instead sent me a list of six probing questions about personal performance, career ambitions, and reputation in the organization. He then set aside two hours to talk it all through with me.

Most of my bosses simply handed me the completed review form. Not that I complained - I was happy to get whatever feedback I could. Like most people, I was primarily concerned with the bonus payment.

In any case, I may have arrived at a solution to the performance review dilemma. I came up with the idea while cleaning out some drawers at home and stumbling across my wife's report card from her second grade class in 1965 at Cassingham Elementary School. Along with simple letter grades, it had a section entitled Social and Work Habits, with a checklist for Areas Needing Improvement that looked like this:

  • Is inattentive 
  • Wastes time and that of others l Does not complete work
  • Is inconsiderate
  • Doesn't play well with others
  • Talks at improper times

This list pretty much defines the pathway to a successful corporate career. My personal favorite is "wastes time and that of others." I regret to report that my wife was consistently dinged for this. There's no quicker way to derail your career than to waste the time of an important person. My second favorite is "talks at improper times." There are decisive moments when your opinion needs to be heard and many more when silence is indeed golden. This advice alone can get you promoted or at the very least keep you from being fired.

And then, of course, there is "Doesn't play well with others." At the executive level, when you don't play well with others, they hire you an executive coach. Or they simply exit you.

That 1965 school evaluation is straightforward, logical, and provides simple direct feedback. It only takes a few minutes to fill out, and offers a deep, thoughtful road map for discussion.

Now all I have to do is get a labor lawyer, an industrial and organizational psychologist, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission official, and a software engineer to agree on the final output. l

Don Spetner has served as CCO for Nissan North America, Sun America, and Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at

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