By Eric Pye | Career Advisor at CPA Alberta

Another new year is here, and that means, for many, that Performance Review season is just around the corner. If the thought of annual performance feedback and goal setting fills you with dread, you’re not alone. It doesn’t have to be that way though, and there are some simple ways that you as a worker can take some control, give meaning to the exercise, and use the review process to develop yourself and advance your career. In this post we’ll look at:

  • What’s wrong with common performance management practices?
  • What SHOULD performance management look like in an ideal world?
  • How can employees ensure they get the performance and development feedback they need?

What’s wrong with common performance management practices?

Numerous surveys have been done around performance management practices and effectiveness in recent years. Findings include:

  • Only 26% of surveyed employees were satisfied with performance management practices at their organizations. (SHRM – Society of Human Resource Management)
  • 58% of HR managers disliked their own performance management practices. (Sibson Consulting)
  • Only 8% of companies reported that performance management drove value. (Deloitte)
  • 58% of organizations believed performance management was an ineffective use of time. (Deloitte)
  • 48% of companies wanted to improve their own performance management practices. (Mercer)

So why is performance management failing? Informal feedback from employees and managers working in a range of organizations and industries about their experiences included the following:

  • Timing: For some employees, performance reviews occur at a bad time in the business cycle. Take for example, accountants; for them, having performance reviews in the already hectic lead-up to year-end is a problem.
  • Stack ranking: The practice of ranking members of a department against each other is anti-productive and demotivating for (x-1)/x employees.
  • Whose expectations? Trying to figure out what “meets,” “exceeds” or “partially” mean is an exercise in futility. One manager’s “exceeds expectations” is another’s “partially meets.”
  • Lack of follow-up: The joke of putting reviews “on a dark shelf next to the Christmas decorations” is, unfortunately, the reality for many workers.
  • Changed landscapes: Economic conditions and markets change, sometimes very quickly. It’s inappropriate to be held to goals when conditions change between reviews.
  • Surprises: Getting “constructive” feedback on a slip-up that occurred 10 months prior isn’t helpful.
  • Forgotten accomplishments: Managers forget employee accomplishments, particularly if they were achieved early in the review cycle, and fail to give due credit in their rankings and/or ratings.
  • Job has changed: Jobs change, especially when projects end or begin, or when technology phases in or out; however, job descriptions typically remain the same. Surely ongoing changes should be made?

There are other issues, but at the heart of things it is clear that, while most organizations have the best intentions, these don’t always translate into better performance or engagement or return-on-investment.

What SHOULD performance management look like?

Dan Pontefract, Learning and Collaboration Head at Telus and author of “Flat Army,” described good performance management as like brushing your teeth three times a day, with regular attention helping avoid cavities and other issues down the road. In his view, what actually happens is more like an annual exercise in waiting for the Easter Bunny, wondering how many – if any – Easter Eggs will be delivered.

One useful image to keep in mind when thinking about performance management is of a tree being watered. Employees (trees) should receive regular feedback and support (watering) from their manager. Very few plants can survive infrequent watering, and those that can (for example, desert flora) spend most of their time dormant, with only a short burst of life and vibrant colour immediately after a downpour. Most will agree that that is not the best outcome for a performance management system.

In an ideal world, performance management should:

  • be a regular occurrence (weekly or at worst monthly),
  • involve coaching and development discussions,
  • include formal and informal recognition of a job well done, and learning required,
  • be linked to career and job-purpose ambitions, and
  • help ensure that an employee’s job description remains current.

How can employees ensure they get the performance and development feedback they need?

On the assumption that 95% of organizations are dropping the ball, what is an employee to do? What does one do if the employer’s performance management system is ineffective, or if one’s manager’s practices (or lack thereof) are counter-productive?

If the employee looks at themself as sole proprietor of an “Enterprise of One,” the answer is to look out for #1; take charge of the situation and do what is necessary to control how much and how often feedback is given/received, and how productive it is.

It may come as a surprise, but there are numerous strategies employees can use to control the frequency and quality of feedback and constructive input from their manager. These can be broken down into a timeline of before, during and after the performance review meeting.

Before the Performance Review:

As an employee, don’t rely on your manager to do all the preparation work. It’s very easy to prepare yourself, and in turn help your manager to be ready for the appraisal discussion. Four suggested actions are:

  1. Questionnaire: To prepare for the review, the worker completes this performance questionnaire. Answers can be long- or bullet-form. The questionnaire focuses on job and performance, and provides an informal agenda for the review meeting. Questions and categories are:
    • Job description: What are the main responsibilities of my job? What are my priority duties? Have I been assigned duties that aren’t in my job description? Are there duties on my job description that haven’t arisen?
    • Accomplishments: What were my major achievements over the past year? (Be specific) Where have I not been as successful as I’d like? What would I like to have done better?
    • Goals: What are some specific targets I believe I can accomplish in the coming year? What are my plans to achieve these? What are my professional development goals? Will the organization support these?
    • Resource needs: What resources/help do I need from my manager or the organization to help me reach my goals? What is my supervisor/manager doing that affects my ability to do my job?
  2. Get all your KPIs in a row: Revisit your goals from the past performance review. What were your goals and KPIs? Did you meet your goals? Note your results, and factors influencing achievement.
  3. Prepare your manager: Send a summary of your pre-meeting notes to your manager. Show them that you take the review process (and your performance and development) seriously, and that you want to make the most of the opportunity. Remind them of things they may have forgotten.
  4. Do your own 360 check: Ask colleagues, clients, decision makers in your team or organization for feedback. General impressions are okay: strengths, areas for development, role in team/organization, impact, etc.

In the Review Meeting:

Once in the meeting, use your notes to keep discussion focused and on track. Have your questionnaire and KPI notes on hand, and go through them with the manager. Hopefully your manager has their own notes to refer to as well, and can add their own feedback and impressions. Other potential topics for discussion here include:

  • Team role: Whether your organization uses a stack ranking or expectations format for appraisals, these can be a distraction in the review process as the evaluative nature tends to put employees on the defensive. As an employee, you can shift the conversation to your role within the team, and how you contribute there. Discuss whether you’re developing (new to the job or with new responsibilities), performing, leading, or mentoring (hopefully you’re not failing or derailing), and key in on what expectations come with that role.
  • Be realistic in goal setting: Based on the current business environment, is your goal doable? Is your goal something YOU can control (or is it out of your hands?) Will you be able to fit professional development into your plan?

After the Review Meeting:

As stressed already, performance management should be a regular occurrence to help employees develop and flourish. For most managers though, “the work” (projects, deadlines, budgets, fighting fires, herding cats) takes priority, and employees find themselves on the back-burner. Again, to get what you need, take charge. Try to:

  • Schedule follow-up meetings yourself (don’t expect your manager to do it).
  • Make meetings a weekly priority, and if the manager has a calendar conflict, ensure that the meeting is rescheduled (by you?) rather than cancelled.
  • Update your manager on current projects, what’s going well and what isn’t. Work together to solve problems and adjust priorities in real time.
  • Elicit ideas from your manager related to feedback, coaching, and your role in the team, and discuss and adjust your goals in real time.
  • Include some general chat in your meetings. Getting to know each other on a personal level will help develop trust and your working relationship.
  • Don’t stress about discussing everything in one meeting. Shift focus. One meeting might be about current projects, the next about professional development, and the next about priority setting and goal adjustment.
  • Give your manager feedback from time to time as well. Tell them what you need from them or the team. This will get easier as you build trust and mutual respect through ongoing meetings.


By using some of the above tactics, workers can take a leadership role in the performance management and self-development process. These practices can also be adapted for use by managers, with the questionnaire distributed to employees prior to an appraisal meeting as a way for them to review and reflect on the past year.

If you have already had your review meeting for the year, the post-meeting actions presented can be implemented right away, and the questionnaire can be divided up with one or two items discussed in each of your first few manager meetings.

Done right, the performance review and performance management process can be great self-development tools. As a knowledgeable, proactive employee, you can take the lead in ensuring they are.


Thanks to Dan Pontefract for the survey stats and thoughts on tooth-brushing and the Easter Bunny. Read his article, “Performance Management Blues” here on LinkedIn.