Failing Scores for Performance Reviews

A new Korn Ferry survey finds nearly half find them unhelpful. Why they aren’t improving.

For years, companies have promised workers they would improve them. But were it a test, performance reviews are still getting surprisingly poor grades from executives who take them. 

In a recent Korn Ferry survey of nearly 500 professionals, nearly half said the reviews they got had either no impact or a negative impact on their performance. The survey also found that “disappointing” was the top word to describe the review process, with 43% of respondents saying their performance reviews failed to help them understand how to improve their work going forward.

Experts say despite all the revamping talk, a major issue for the review process is frequency: When it comes to giving feedback to employees, once a year just doesn’t cut it.

“I have apps and tools that tell me how fast I ran, how my portfolio is doing in real time, how many steps I’ve walked,” says Nathan Blain, senior client partner and global leader for Talent Strategy at Korn Ferry Hay Group. “I would never wait until the end of the year to review them because there’s nothing I could do about it at that point.”

Experts say that the most beneficial system is one in which employees are getting regular feedback throughout the year, particularly at the end of any significant project, as it allows them more opportunities to improve. Sales managers tend to do this well, often providing feedback to their direct reports after observing them in client meetings. “They’ll say, ‘I thought you could have prepared better,’ or ‘I thought you could have handled the objection they raised more effectively,” says Blain. “They’ll give you very specific coaching. You know you’re doing it right when performance feedback starts to feel like coaching.”

But frequency is only one part of it; the other part is the quality of the feedback itself. Instead of focusing only on what someone did well (or not well), managers should seek to show people how their performance is contributing to the goals of the larger organization. Doing so can help create greater engagement among employees, as they can see how they’re making an impact and where they can effect change in the organization.

“People tend to struggle with how their own objectives are linked to company strategy,” says Nick Faure, senior client partner at Korn Ferry Hay Group. “Something that is missing, which might bring a more positive experience to reviews, is showing how a person’s performance relates to the company’s performance.” 

It’s an effort that may help managers even more than it helps their direct reports: 84% of senior leaders say disengaged employees are one of the biggest threats to their business, but only 12% monitor engagement levels, according to research by Korn Ferry. 

Performance reviews can also be more helpful when managers are selective about their feedback. Too often, reviews are filled with platitudes about a person’s strengths or shortcomings without any real examples, and in areas that don’t really matter.

“There are an infinite number of things your direct reports can be good or bad at,” says Blain. “Focus on two or three things. Don’t pick the thing that’s annoying to you but doesn’t really matter to the impact the employee is having on the company.”