Performance Review vs. Performance Preview


On October 20, 2008, one of the top 3 articles emailed on the Wall Street Journal was not about the election, or the sinking stock market.  It was about one of the lowliest and least popular of all business activities — the Performance Review.  Why did an article about the performance review rise above the noise of a contentious general election and panicky stock market?  The answer just may be the title of the article itself, “Get Rid of the Performance Review!” by Samuel A. Culbert, a professor of management at UCLA.  The very thought of kicking the poor performance review into the parking lot got people clicking on the article to see how it can be done.  There was a similar reaction to the article, “Why we hate HR,” in Fast Company in 2005.

Although I don’t agree with all of the criticism Dr. Culbert hurls at the performance review (when done correctly, they are a great leadership tool), I would like to highlight several observations and suggestions for improvement that he offers:

1. The danger of Two Mind-Sets.  If leaders are not careful, they can go into the performance review focused purely on “missed opportunities, skill limitations and relationships that need enhancing.”  On the other hand, the employee is in danger of going into the performance review completely focused on “compensation, job progression and career advancement.”  The two mindsets run the risk of putting the participants “at odds and talking past one another.”  I have seen this exact scenario play out in many organizations, and I have experienced it myself, both as an employee and a manager.  The best way to deal with this is to acknowledge the danger up-front, make both parties aware of the potential to slip into this two mindset bias, and create a process that mitigates the risk.  I think Dr. Culbert’s recommendation below hits on the process issue.

2. Performance Previews.  The alternative to the performance review that Dr. Culbert offers in the article is the performance preview, a forward thinking discussion whereby both parties discuss their assignments and responsibilities for achieving success in the coming year or period.   Given that it is the manager’s responsibility to “guide, coach, tutor, provide oversight  and generally do whatever is required to assist a subordinate to perform successfully,” they should be held accountable for the success of the employee.  Therefore the performance preview is a collaborative discussion between the leader and employee about how they can work together to efficiently reach objectives.

I think every organization could benefit from reviewing their performance review process with these two insights in mind.  How are you addressing the two-mind set issue, and how can you incorporate the concept of the performance preview into the process?  I still believe that a performance review must have a feedback (backward-looking) component; but in order to truly be inspiring, the performance review must also be a performance preview.


  • First of all, I want to welcome Sean Murray to the blogosphere. This blog promises to be an excellent source of interesting and thought-provoking perspectives on leadership.

    Regarding the standard performance review process, I think the suggestions in this post for addressing the “two-mind set” issue and having a “preview” instead of a review are very helpful for improving the usefulness of annual performance meetings. But I would suggest that relying on once-a-year performance meetings is a problem in itself. We all need performance feedback more often than that and this is especially true in constantly changing, high-paced business environments in which most of us work. Managers and their direct-reports should be having much more frequent (and relatively short) conversations about goals, indicators of success, performance, and what the employee needs in order to be successful. By the time the official annual meeting occurs, the employee should know very clearly where he/she stands and where he/she is going in the organization.

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