Faces of HR

Rising Higher: Eliminating Performance Reviews

My personal opinion, for whatever that’s worth, is that performance reviews do more harm than good. Most people have different feedback needs, and memorializing their flaws in documentation can make otherwise excellent employees head for the door. I am not alone in that belief. Today’s “Faces of HR” guest feels similarly; that’s why she eliminated performance reviews at the last three companies where she worked.

Meet Gaylyn Sher-Jan, Chief People Officer at Bright.md, a fast-growing digital health company partnering with leading health systems to transform how they deliver care.

How did you find yourself in an HR role in the first place?

Thank you for asking that because the story is long in my case. I started out as a programmer/analyst at HP. There was an awful lot at that time when I was starting; a lot of the software systems that were run business were self-made and generated, and I had control of the systems that generated the final revenue. I had all the manufacturing systems, and I also had the booking to revenue systems on our financial forecasting and budgeting.

I got to see firsthand how a business runs and makes revenue and what money does to drive behaviors in the business. Then I switched roles into one of my customer organizations. I was actually a manufacturing manager for multiple years. I got my chops around managing people; had a pretty big span of control; and ended up doing, I think, some unique and innovative things at HP. Our VP of HR for the company got to know me and liked my management approach.

She wanted me to help adjust the culture and the framework and the philosophy of how we see people. She brought me into the HR organization as a manager of learning and development, compensation, and staffing.

I ended up doing multiple tours of duty in HR under her watchful and development eye. I also did a couple of small tours overseas to help in multiple capacities around transitioning the large-format plotters to different manufacturing sites and then a grassroots Greenfield start-up in Ireland.

I had a lot of opportunity and found this is an area where, coming from the business and outside of HR, I could add an extra dimension to the function.

What is your philosophy of how employers should look at their people?

I really like that question because it gets right to one of my core values around empowerment and believing that people rise to the occasion.

As I mentioned, I worked in business in the early parts of my career at a very large company that does an excellent job training and developing and building you as an employee. When I switched over into the HR function, there was an awful lot of focus around performance management, judging people, and assessing their capabilities, almost to the point where an individual has to prove his or her worth.

I think this is one of the things that was important to my HR learning journey, which is in HR may be assessing the wrong things. Outside of HR in the business functions, you’re given a task, and you have to deliver. If you can’t deliver, you’ll figure out how to get help. So, you’re really empowered to make your move forward.

No one’s holding your hand, and no one’s judging you, except on whether you can deliver and deliver well. I believe that we, as HR professionals, should understand that people are coming to work to do their best work. We assume that, and we assume they are capable and that they’re in their job because they can do their job. We have a higher standard of expectations for employees, and we empower them to do more.

Instead of judging where they’re falling short, we should be actually challenging them to rise higher. That has been a fundamental belief and a cultural statement that I brought to my later HR roles at other companies.

I, for one, really don’t like performance reviews. I am particularly sensitive to criticism. I don’t like it when people point out my flaws. I already know my flaws. I have a whole list.

Exactly. I’m with you.

Especially when you do the annual reviews. What happens when you have a rough month before the review or you make some mistakes or something? Now suddenly, Jim’s rough month becomes emblematic of his whole year. It gets written down and becomes the new reality.

That’s what I want to change about HR. I am clear that that needs to change because Jim is great. And Jim does an awful lot. Let’s see what else Jim wants to do, and let’s move it forward because you yourself will self-direct your career and your deliverables. You will work to the capacity that is really what you want to do. That’s what’s most important to me.

There’s also this human foible where when you are asked to say something negative, you’re going to say something. There’s no such thing as perfection. If you ask somebody “What’s the problem with your employee?” he or she is going to find some problem.

Right. So, let’s you and I change this.

Yes, let’s!

I am 100% behind you. In the last three companies I’ve been at, I have eliminated performance reviews. It’s a Band-Aid to rip off, but it forces all of us as leaders and managers to say, “Let’s have a fundamental philosophy of how we see people.” And until you can tell me that you, as a manager, see your team member as someone who is contributing to your success, you’re probably not doing him or her much justice.

I agree with your earlier statement that most people, when put in a trusting scenario and treated with respect, will put their total effort toward their work.

Exactly. And even their heart and soul.

Absolutely.

Work is important to people. And the times when it’s not important, it’s usually because they’re going through a moment or there’s something else that is super important; but your career is long. When you look at those times that you haven’t been maybe at your best or producing at your most, it’s OK because a majority of the time, you are producing and doing well and with the best effort and intention behind it. So, that’s what should be celebrated and rewarded.

What do you do instead of performance reviews, if anything? What does that look like?

I think it goes to the heart of feedback and how frequently that happens. Can you establish a connection with your employee whereby your employee understands what his or her role is and what you need from him or her? Can you provide clarity to the person? Can you give your worker enough specifics and clarity so that he or she understands what it is he or she is expected to do?

Sometimes we fall a little short because we’re not really sure. So, it’s our job to dig deeper and figure out what is good enough and what is not. Be clear about that. Then you have to be truthful with that feedback. That means being able to say, “Here is what I’ve asked of you to do. It’s not the way I expected. Can you help me understand why?”

Having that type of direct conversation without judgment is probably the most important aspect. I’ve been surprised over and over and over again when I thought I understood why a person couldn’t perform to my level of expectation but then, they surprised me with all sorts of great things I was totally unaware of.

Maybe it’s that they want a different role or they’re better at something else or they’re spending a significant amount of time on a different part of the business because I haven’t been clear. So, there’s no need to start out with judgment. There’s just a need to clarify for myself “Oh, this is a better use of what they’re doing. They’re right.” Or, “Well, maybe let’s redirect it in this direction.”

Two-way communication is key. That feedback doesn’t have to be a judgment. Feedback can just be how do we accomplish what we’re doing? Try to get really rigorous around feedback and the number of times feedback occurs. I’m trying to be really practical about this. It’s important for management to do this frequently—at least weekly.

You said you did this at three different organizations. How challenging would you say it was to get your ideas across to upper management and middle management? Are these challenging things, or do you find that things just fall into place once you set some guidelines?

Well, you’re hinting right at it, Jim. It’s really hard to do. My tactic has been to make it very personal. I even have a placemat that I’ll put in front of a person if we’re face-to-face. I’ll walk them through what the current system does and what the feelings and emotions and the employee experiences in the current system.

Then, I have another placemat that says, “Now let’s walk through that same cycle, the same experience that an employee has during a feedback moment. And let’s first start out with the belief in the individual. And let me walk you through what happens.”

I’m doing a before and after. Then, I take the person through the third step, which is, “I want you to walk me through an experience that you’ve had that is in this old system. I want you to tell me what it was like.” That way, he or she personally identifies with a moment that was very hard for him or her.

Then, I say, “Have you ever been in this new type of system?” Most people haven’t. I’m asking them to then visualize what it could be and how their life and their career would be different. And so, it’s all well and good. It’s hand-to-hand combat. I have to meet with individuals one at a time to really ensure they understand this philosophy at a very deep level before I can say, “Victory. We’ve got a philosophy that’s well-understood.”

Well, that’s commendable. At the core of the problem of performance reviews is that you’re not going to make a sheet that’s going to tell me who I am.

Exactly. Yes.

This isn’t Dungeons and Dragons.

That’s exactly right. You’ve got it. It starts with your philosophy and how we see people. And until we can get to the very root, it doesn’t matter what system you put in place. So, go slow to go fast. Right? Somebody said that!