In the classroom, students receive constant feedback — from assignment scores to peer reviews, to one-on-one meetings with instructors. Students also provide feedback to their teachers about how to improve teaching strategies. Feedback is everywhere in the classroom and it’s continuous, timely and multidirectional.

But in the world of work (an environment that in some ways feels similar to the classroom), why do we often allow employee feedback loops and performance management to fall short of this standard? Why is feedback often so one-directional, only sourced from an employee’s manager and primarily shared during formal reviews?

Whether you know it or not, your organization’s performance review process may be the problem. Annual reviews typically look back at an employee’s abilities, with little focus on what’s to come. In this model, feedback is given so infrequently and from so few sources that it isn’t very valuable to the person being reviewed.

Enter continuous performance management — an alternative to the antiquated annual performance review model. Unlike annual performance reviews, continuous performance management encourages managers, direct reports and colleagues to share feedback regularly, transforming anxiety-inducing events into sources of motivation. Rethinking your review process can help improve employee motivation, engagement and performance — all of which fuel business success and greater retention.

A Modern Approach to Performance Reviews

Historically, performance management consisted of annual employee appraisals focused on one thing — accountability.

According to a Harvard Business Review article, workplaces started operating this way around World War I, copying the U.S. military’s merit-rating system of evaluating, flagging and dismissing poor performers. While this may have worked in the 1910’s, we’re 100 years in the future. Times have (thankfully) changed. While today’s annual performance reviews have rightfully moved away from just accountability, there are still areas of the review process that could use improvement.

First, we now know a lot more about how humans learn and are motivated. People learn best when feedback is bite-size and when they’re active participants in their own learning. Clearly, once-a-year reviews do little to teach and inspire your employees, and instead mostly bring up feelings of dread and anxiety.

Second, since WWI we’ve gone through one industrial revolution and are in the midst of another. Technologies like computers, automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT) make our jobs less formulaic and a lot more creative. The annual review may have worked when your employees repeated the same tasks day in and day out, but today they’re focused on higher-level work that leaves a lot more room for excellence (or error).

Third, there are more employers than ever. In this tight talent market, you (and your competitors) may be more willing to hire employees that live anywhere in the world, giving today’s talent access to more job opportunities. Considering that the majority of employees are dissatisfied with the annual review model, you can’t afford to continue with the same old, same old.

Across the board, the annual performance review is outdated and ineffective — for employees and employers. Your employees aren’t given effective feedback that helps them progress in their careers. Instead, they’re given a history report. This leads to anxiety (not learning), which could prompt their eventual departure in pursuit of a more supportive culture. And you and your managers are missing out on opportunities to teach, motivate, challenge and engage your teams — which hampers employee performance and ongoing development.

Also according to Harvard Business Review, in the 2010’s, tech and professional service giants like Adobe, IBM, Microsoft, Kelly Services and Deloitte began abandoning the annual review to focus on more frequent, informal feedback. The simultaneous emergence of sophisticated employee survey technologies also helped open the door for more frequent and diverse types of feedback (like the ability to survey employees anonymously).

Since then, many more companies have followed suit and have experienced positive results. According to Kazoo’s research report, “Beyond the Annual Review: The Transformative State of Performance Conversations,” human resources (HR) leaders at companies already completing continuous performance appraisals are to say performance reviews are helpful than those at companies doing annual reviews. And employees who receive real-time feedback are 400% more likely to state their performance reviews led them to do better work.

4 Ways to Create a Culture of Continuous Feedback

If your team is ready to say goodbye to antiquated annual performance appraisals, and say hello to a more effective performance management model, here are a few pieces of advice to help get you started:

  1. Increase the frequency of check ins and goal setting. In a continuous, one-on-one model, encourage employees and managers to meet at least once a week to discuss how tasks are going in real time. Performance check-ins happen once a quarter and are dedicated to expectation setting, reviews and ongoing goals. Remember, performance conversations are discussions, not one-sided report cards. Ask for employees’ active participation and be sure to listen for listening’s sake, not to respond. While weekly meetings and quarterly reviews may initially seem like a big-time suck for managers, it’s less time-consuming than you’d think. Kazoo’s report also found that 83% of check in and performance conversations last less than half an hour, while one-third are between five and 10 minutes.
  2. Incorporate multi-directional feedback. Managers aren’t the only ones working with their direct reports, so why should they be the only reviewer? As you move toward a continuous review model, incorporate peer feedback to get a more accurate view of employees’ abilities, strengths and areas for improvement. Importantly, diversifying feedback sources helps limit conscious or unconscious bias from seeping into reviews. It’s also important to incorporate upward feedback into performance conversations. Management isn’t one-size-fits-all, and direct reports should feel comfortable letting their managers know what is and isn’t resonating with their preferred working styles. At the end of the day, people leaders are still employees themselves, and they also want to uplevel their skills and continuously improve. Getting peers and people leaders comfortable with giving and receiving feedback also encourages a culture of support, where employees see offering feedback, advice and assistance as a part of their day-to-day responsibilities. Multi-directional feedback transforms the review process from a bombardment of one-sided critiques into an ongoing conversation around patterns and opportunities.
  3. Expand the breadth of coaching conversations. The Kazoo report also found that only 43% of managers use performance conversations to ask how they can better support their teams. Sources of motivation and support needs differ, so your people leaders can use this process to confirm if their managerial style is actually helpful for each of their direct reports. Additionally, most managers don’t explain how overall company goals relate to the individual employees’ responsibilities, which may be why are unable to tie their actions to their organization’s goals. This is a critical misstep. When your employees understand why their work matters, they can feel more invested in your organization’s mission and are more willing to go above and beyond to achieve success. Employee surveys can help you gauge your workforce’s understanding of organizational mission and goals. By aggregating employee data and looking at pocketed levels (like by department or role) you can better understand which areas of your organization need additional resources and training.
  4. Provide the right tools. For a continuous performance model to succeed, your managers need to be equipped with the right toolkit. Having managers rely on a patchwork of disconnected documents, surveys, emails and written feedback makes it difficult to view year-over-year employee progression and more likely that they’ll give up on the continuous performance management model. With people technology, you can streamline and standardize reviews, goal setting and goal tracking. An all-in-one platform can help you hold employees accountable, reduce bias, make providing feedback easy and give leadership greater insight into talent. By leveraging technology, managers can cultivate high-performing, engaged direct reports, no matter where they’re located.

It’s time to close the chapter on the annual performance review. The continuous performance management model offers a better way to track, discuss and cultivate employee progress — one that motivates and empowers employees.

By making feedback continuous, timely and multidirectional your workforce can become more agile and responsive, in turn, increasing productivity, efficiency and employee engagement. Performance never stops, so why should feedback?

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