Performance Reviews: Missing the Forest for the Trees

A discussion with a friend about his recent performance review reminded me that, as human beings, we’re all apt to “miss the forest for the trees” on occasion.  Sometimes we can do something well, and still miss the point of the exercise.  This is such a story.

The Story

Looking somewhat dejected, my friend handed me a copy of his performance review and asked me to read it.  Seeing his demeanor, I was expecting to find nasty comments or low ratings on the review.  As I read through it, though, I saw that it was clearly a very positive review, with a number of strong compliments –even ending with a handwritten note from his boss thanking him for his service and looking forward to even greater success in the coming year.

“I’m a little confused,” I told him. “This is a great review.”

“It is,” he replied.

“It looks your boss has done just about everything we would teach in a ‘performance management’ class.  She used several specific examples of your accomplishments, and she included feedback from your colleagues and other staff members who interacted with you.  She set new goals for next year … and she even approved the professional development plan that you had proposed.  All of that is spelled out right in the review,” I suggested hopefully.

“I know,” he said—still looking like Eyeore from Winnie the Pooh.

“So why the long face?” I finally asked.

He sighed and said, “She never talked to me once the whole year – not even to stop by for a minute to see how things were going.

And there you had it: assessment without relationship.  A morale killer, indeed.


My friend’s boss had done everything right in compiling his review.  But she forgot just one thing.  Yes—performance reviews are designed to let both the company and the employee have a clear, common understanding of how the employee performed during the year, and facts and examples need to be recorded.  Yes—evaluations are places for fine-tuning goals and providing professional development guidance for the future.  But they are also about building relationships.

Ideally, a performance review is simply a summary of all of the coaching, mentoring, and “check-in” conversations that the employee and supervisor have had over the year.  In that way, reviews reinforce the supervisor-employee relationship (and more broadly, the employee’s relationship with the organization).  This supervisor got all of the facts right … but she missed the relationship part entirely.

Looking Forward

As adults, we understand that no organization can or should hold our hands all the time, attending to our emotional needs at the expense on concentrating on the business.  In the course of carrying out that business, however, we need to keep in mind that employees want to know that their bosses are paying attention to them more than just once a year at review time.

We all need gentle reminders from time to time.  Let’s work hard to get performance reviews right … and supervisory relationships, too.  In this way, perhaps we can see the beauty in both the forest and the trees.

One response to “Performance Reviews: Missing the Forest for the Trees

  1. Michael, this is excellent advice, thank you. Performance review time of year aways creates anxiety for managers and employees. I’ve always thought that the best part of the review process is having the opportunity to sit down with your boss or employee and chat for a while. To your point though, this shouldn’t be the only time of the year that these types of conversations happen. Regularly discussing, results, expectations and opportunities makes the review process much more comfortable for everyone.

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