Written by: Susannah Brouwer

Nobody likes the idea of “performance management.” The phrase alone makes you feel like you’ve already done something wrong. Going through the dreaded “annual review” process can be like preparing for a long-anticipated boxing match. You don’t know exactly what you’re walking into, but you know it’s probably going to hurt. You’ll get in a few good punches, and then you’ll have to go onto the defensive. You survive it, set some goals for next time, and then forget all about it until a year later.

performance review

Sound familiar? It sure did to us at CCI. Our performance management process was stuck in the ice ages. It was a seven-part form with a gazillion questions and rating sections. It took hours for each team member to fill out, and then managers spent days completing their portions and preparing for The Review. With much anticipation and anxiety, we would then meet with our managers once a year for an hour to review everything we did right and wrong. We would set some goals that didn’t get looked at again until the following year.

The problem wasn’t even that it was time-consuming and anxiety-producing, but rather that it simply didn’t work well. Performance management can and should be a fundamental tool to optimize team members’ contribution to CCI’s work and also help us grow professionally. They say feedback is a gift, and sure, we all know that deep down, but what seven-part form feels like a gift? Our performance management wasn’t doing much for us in the optimization or growth department. What we wanted was a system that prompted good, hearty conversations about how we can keep improving, and our current system just wasn’t doing that.

So we changed it. Overhauled it, really. First we mapped out team members’ experiences of “performance management,” both at CCI and in past jobs. Then we mapped out an ideal state—what would an awesome performance management system look like? We looked at what other groups were doing that seemed to be working, including examples from some really forward-looking groups. And then we got to work.

First, we got rid of the name. Performance management no more! Through multiple staff surveys, we zeroed in on our new name: Reflect and Thrive, because that’s exactly what we want this tool to help us do. We also intentionally changed the language around the tool components. We now have “Conversations,” not “Reviews.” You get the idea.

Second, we got rid of the annual standalone review. The more often you take time to reflect with your manager, the more natural the feedback conversation becomes. That’s what we’re hearing these days; the more immediate the feedback, the better. So we broke it down into Trimester Conversations.

Third, we deleted all of the previous questions and started from scratch. What kind of questions would prompt the kind of conversation we wanted managers and staff to have? First, we heard from our team that the quantitative rating questions did nothing for them but produce anxiety and more work. Goodbye rating questions! And then we made a list of five simple questions for the manager and team member to think about to prepare for their Conversation. That’s it. Five questions.

Fourth, we eliminated most of the paperwork around the Conversations. You know the kind: the manager fills out this, then the employee fills out this, then you share it over email, then you send comments back, then you TALK (whoa!), then you update it, they sign it, we sign it, everybody signs it, and the list goes on. We decided that team members and managers could decide together how they wanted to prepare for the meeting. You can take notes, you can wing it, you can send your notes beforehand. Each pair decides what works best for them.

We also definitely wanted peer input! Before each conversation, the manager sends out a few simple “what works well, what could be improved” emails to the team members’ peers and then uses that feedback to inform the upcoming Conversation

Finally we knew we wanted to set goals, so we tacked a few extra items onto the third Trimester Conversation each year. In this session, the manager and team member come up with a new list of actionable goals for the next year. The Trimester Conversations for the year to come revolve around these goals.

And there we had it, a new and shiny Reflect and Thrive system. Now we needed to test it first. We had a trial run with a few brave testers. We got feedback from them: what worked, what was confusing, what needed changing. Using these changes, we tried it again. And again. And finally we got to a working version to try out with everyone.

We’re approaching one year with our new system this January, which will be a great opportunity for us to regroup, revise and keep building. So far the response has been really positive about the changes and seem to be spurring more frequent, productive conversations. But that doesn’t mean our work is done. It does, however, mean that we’re on the right track to Reflect and Thrive like champions.



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