What People Hate about Performance Reviews and How to Improve Them

Manager giving feedback to an employee during a performance review.

Reza Estakhrian / Getty Images

Let’s face it: no one likes the annual performance review. No one. Reviewers (managers) hate doing them, employees hate getting them, and human resources hate administering them.

Each year there is at least one book and countless articles about why they should be banned or fixed. This has been going as long as we can remember, and it seems little improvement has been made. What is it about this annual corporate ritual that seems to cause such consternation and pain? And more importantly, can it be fixed?

We hate to be a pessimist, but after studying the topic of performance reviews for more than 25 years, numerous attempts to reinvent or fix broken systems, being on the receiving end and giving end of hundreds of reviews and making every mistake that can be made, we've come to the conclusion that performance reviews will always be a less than enjoyable experience for all involved. Why?

First, let’s put the inevitable reasons employees, managers, and HR hate them on the table that just can’t be fixed and accept them as givens. Then, let’s talk about how we can, at last, make the process less painful. Why we hate performance reviews: givens that we just need to suck it up and accept:

Human Nature

People hate having their flaws pointed out and managers hate giving negative feedback. But wait, don’t all of the studies say people want and love feedback? Sure they do, as long as it’s positive feedback. When we receive feedback that challenges our assumptions about ourselves, we automatically go into a protective “fight or flight” survival mode. We deny, get angry, get defensive, or withdraw. No artist likes getting a negative critical review, no restaurant owner likes getting a critical TripAdvisor review, and no employee likes hearing their flaws pointed out by their manager.

And unless the manager is a sadist and enjoys inflicting pain, most managers really don’t enjoy delivering bad news to their employees. In fact, most people, in general, don’t enjoy giving negative feedback. That’s why anonymous 360 assessment reviews are so popular because they give people an opportunity to say what they really feel without having to be confronted or questioned.

The Formality and Bureaucracy

Typical performance reviews involve a prescribed process, forms, and a formal discussion. It’s often not the actual discussion that employees (and managers) find painful, it’s the “stiffness” and feeling like you are being forced to comply with something that you’d rather not have to do.

It’s Extra Work

Everyone is terminally busy these days, in fact, we always have been. We work hard and hope to see positive results. The annual review comes along and it feels like “extra” work that gets in the way of our real work. Managers, especially managers with a lot of direct reports, spend endless hours filling out forms, writing comments, reviewing records, conducting discussions (sometimes in multiple meetings), and submitting paperwork. Employees are often asked to do self-assessments and to be prepared to defend themselves, and HR ends up with an impossible mountain of paperwork that needs to be in compliance with all kinds of state and federal regulations.

Okay, so if we can just accept that performance reviews can involve negative feedback, are a required part of working life, and will involve some extra work that isn’t particularly fulfilling, do we have to hate them, or are there some ways we can make them less painful than a root canal? Absolutely!

Here are three simple ways to make performance reviews less painful:

Eliminate Surprises

People hate negative feedback most the first time they hear it, or when it’s about something they were clueless about (blind spots). The way to minimize the pain of hearing about weaknesses for the first time during the annual performance review is to get into the habit of giving and asking for feedback on a regular basis. When feedback is given and received early, often, specifically, and in a balanced way, employees have time to process it and do something about it. Managers can create an environment that encourages the two-way exchange of informal feedback in a way that builds trust and eliminates surprises.

Better yet, create systems where employees can measure and monitor their own performance. For example, no manager has to point out to a sales rep that they are having a bad month. They already are painfully aware that they are not meeting their sales goals, and are scrambling to finds ways to improve. That’s when a sales manager can provide valuable coaching in order to help the sales rep get back on track.

Get Better at Giving and Receiving Feedback

The more skilled we are, the more comfortable we will get with it. See “How to Get Candid Feedback” and “How to Give Feedback.”

Simplify the Process

Why are performance reviews so darn complicated? I’ve seen versions that include 14-page forms and a series of three meetings. It’s usually because they are designed by well-intended HR departments (or consultants, or lawyers) that attempt to address every aspect of performance management in a single form and process.

The solution? It’s not fancy software systems that only automate (and sometimes further complicate) a bad process. I would recommend a single page – or no more than two pages - for a performance review form. I’ve seen this implemented and it’s been received very well by managers, employees, and HR.

Implement these three relatively simple fixes and your annual performance review may still feel like a trip to the dentist, but more like teeth cleaning, instead of an excruciating root canal.