Skip to navigation
24 Min Read

Harvard Meets GitHub: Using Evidence To Design The Future Of Performance Reviews

Courtney Bigony
Courtney Bigony

Most managers dread everything about employee performance reviews. These evaluations are tedious and time consuming, the technology (if any) sucks, and the conversation is always uncomfortable. In some circumstances, it’s even company policy to rank each of your team members. You probably hate narrowing down employee performance to a single number, but that’s just standard procedure.

Employee review conversations center around staff low points over the past several months or even the entire year. They didn’t perform at their best and it’s your job to point that out. You mention that you hope they step it up and you list ways they can improve. They nod and hint at a half-smile, but even though you’re talking, it doesn’t feel like your words are getting through.

You both walk away from the performance evaluation feeling drained, neutral at best. You’re not totally sure how they feel, but you’re glad the conversation is complete. You look at your calendar and realize you still have six more employee reviews to go. It’s gonna be a long week.

We teamed up with Alan Colquitt, author of Next Generation Performance Management, to explore ratings & compensation in performance management. Check out the video above to learn more.

Now let’s imagine something different:

Your team member is excited to check in with you and you suggest that you head outside and go on a walk. The air is crisp and it feels good to move. First, as always, you talk about her strengths – what is it that she does better than everyone else? Her peers mention strengths they see that shine through her work. Patterns from everyone’s feedback start to emerge:

– Designs focused and fluid powerpoint presentations. The information is always clear and engaging.

– Stellar at breaking down data that impacts the direction of our decisions.

She smiles. These things come so easy and naturally, she didn’t realize her work made such a big impression on her fellow team members and impacted the company. It feels great to give her this feedback. It’s pretty amazing to see her become aware of strengths she didn’t even realize she had, or maybe took for granted!

You celebrate what went well over the past couple of months and you work to uncover the Why. Why are her powerpoints always so clear and engaging? Who was she working with? Where did she work? Was it at home? Yes! Through a combination of your feedback and her own self appraisal you both realize she does her best work when she has the chance to work at home at least once a week.

Now that you uncovered what leads to her best work, you encourage her to work from home once a week moving forward and bake that positive routine into her schedule. You’re excited for the win-win situation yielded from her performance evaluation. The quality of her work is twice as good and she seems twice as happy. So far the conversation is gold, and you can tell she feels energized.

Next you talk about growth opportunities. You’re excited because you know growth and development is her top priority. You narrow down two focus areas:

– Develop excel skills to become a reporting wiz.

– Develop better public speaking skills to engage others like a pro.

This doesn’t come as a surprise to her. You’ve spoken about this before. Together, you brainstorm next steps and set measurable goals for work:

1. Present to the entire team next week to gauge her baseline.

2. Take an online Udemy course with Jason Teteak, presentation guru and bestselling author of “Rule the Room”.

3. Present to the team again and note progress.

4. Lead a presentation to the entire company at the next town hall for an extra challenge.

You’re excited to see how she grows and improves her employee engagement, morale, and performance. She mentions she’s nervous but excited to take on the challenge.

You know that one day she dreams of speaking at TED. You mention how improving her public speaking skills, combined with her natural talent of designing stellar presentations, will help her get one step closer to her dream. You remember an amazing coach you know who mentors amateur speakers working to go pro. You say you’ll make an introduction. Her face lights up.

Next you visualize her future impact within the organizational culture. Who does she influence? How will her work make a difference in the lives of others? How will they feel? You exchange ideas about how her work will have the most leveraged impact on the company, the customers, and the mission.

This is what it feels like when you conspire for an employee’s greatness.

Welcome to the Best-Self Review™.

The Best-Self Review is a strengths-based development conversation designed to ensure every team member is on a full-force, continued growth trajectory toward their best self.

There’s lots of talk about the uncertain future of employee performance reviews these days and what to do next. Many companies are simply renegotiating their relationship to the practice, keeping what works and removing what doesn’t. Others are breaking up fully and ditching employee reviews altogether. We don’t claim to have all the answers, so we decided to focus on what we do know and build from there. That’s why we turned to science.

Ready to get started? You can learn about the Best-Self Review, here.

Beware: The Dangers Of The Internet And The Blind Acceptance Of Half Truths

The internet provides an endless cascading waterfall of information. It’s hard to find reliable sources and suss out opinion from truth. Driven by the need to increase click-through rates, important topics ranging from health and wellness to management are diseased with catchy headlines, fads and hype. It feels like the only thing we can rely on is fiction novels, because we know for certain that’s fiction. Clearly everything available online isn’t evidence-based. To prove it to you, here are a few popular myths circulating in the world of employee performance management:

Common management fads and hype:

1. The Myers Briggs Personality Test. There’s little evidence showing the Myers Briggs actually works. The Big 5 Personality test, an assessment developed using the scientific method, is far more reliable at showing the link between personality and employee performance.

2. Ever hear about learning styles? You’re not alone. The learning styles myth is endorsed by 93% of the public. The learning style myth claims that certain people learn better using auditory methods, visual methods or by doing. Research shows that even if you think you learn better a certain way, your performance often says otherwise. The most effective way to learn is not by learning style, but based on the type of information being taught. For example, geometry is better learned pictorially rather than just verbally due to the visual nature of the subject.

3. The Millennial Myth. Ever hear that millennials are lazy job hoppers compared to their baby boomer counterparts? When researchers systematically reviewed the research available on millennials, they found little evidence that generational differences affect organizational satisfaction, commitment and intent to turnover. Boomers hopped around when they were in their mid-20s just as much as millennials do now. It’s the nature of an early career, not being part of a certain generation.

Evidence Based Product Design: Using Research To Guide Our Product Decisions

Thankfully, there’s a better way for people in companies who are interested in making decisions based on data rather than intuition or what’s currently trending. Evidence-based management provides organizations with the tools they need to make better judgements about managing employee performance. We’re extending the definition of evidence-based management to include evidence in our product design process…

We critically examined peer-reviewed research on setting goals, one on one meetings, performance reviews, staff recognition, and employee feedback. Peer-reviewed simply means that before publication in a scholarly journal, an academic’s research has to get a stamp of approval by other experts in their field. We also leveraged trustworthy research from The Center for Evidence Based Management, also known as CEBMa. CEBMa is known for critically appraising research to ensure insights are pulled from the most trustworthy sources. We pulled out the actionable insights and built that research backed wisdom into 15Five. Using an evidence based method, our product decisions are based on data rather than dangerous half-truths and recycled best practices.

Given our focus on unlocking the best in people and workplaces, we also turned to positive psychology. Positive psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The term positive psychology was coined by Abraham Maslow and promoted as a field of scientific study in 1998 by Martin Seligman, a psychologist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. While the majority of traditional psychology focuses on illness, positive psychology brings a much needed balance to the field by focusing on happiness, well-being and the factors that contribute to a fulfilling life.

Positive psychology can be applied both to individuals and organizations, and the Best-Self Review is designed to mutually benefit both the employee and the company. Research shows that positive organizations with engaged, thriving employees are also the top performing and most successful. This research on positive organizational cultures aligns so well with our vision to create the space for people to be their greatest selves, we thought it was too good to be true!

Our vision for the new employee performance review begins with the name we coined, Best-Self Review. The Best-Self Review provides managers with frameworks and tools to be positive leaders and create both high performing teams that also bring out the best in their people. Using academic research and guided by positive psychology, we’ve created an employee self assessment template to foster the growth mindset and maximize employee growth and development. Here, we will outline the evidence and product features that make our Best-Self Review so effective for managing employee performance.

Separate Compensation And Development Conversations

First, we create a safe space for honest employee feedback and reflection by decoupling development conversations from compensation while still providing the data necessary to make important decisions. We intentionally separate development from pay conversations because the research is clear – combining the two has a negative affect on employee motivation and leads to perceived unfairness. When it comes to effective performance reviews, ensuring fairness reigns supreme.

Having separate conversations about development and pay is a crucial first step to ensure employees feel the process is fair. In an article in Harvard Business Review, Wharton professor, Adam Grant and Facebook’s VP of People, Lori Goler talk about the importance of fairness in the employee review process. They mention research that shows when a review is perceived as fair, people will be more willing to accept the outcomes, even if the outcomes are undesirable or different from what the employee wants. In order to ensure fairness, it’s important to set expectations upfront and to be clear about the nature of the conversation.

Although it’s important to separate pay and development, in both conversations, managers and employees need to objectively keep track of performance throughout the year. In 15Five, managers have access to performance management tools and months of data like completion percentages on OKRs for an unbiased and accurate view of performance.

Research shows that when managers keep track of key performance milestones and projects, the quality of their feedback gets even better. Setting and monitoring goals throughout the year helps ensure performance feedback is frequent, timely and remains as objective as possible.

In order to help managers objectively assess employee performance, we’ve included future focused questions inspired by Deloitte to reduce the idiosyncratic rater bias. These questions were highlighted in the April 2015 HBR article, Reinventing Performance Management by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. Research shows that most performance appraisals, especially those that use ratings, reveal more about the rater than the actual performance of the person being rated. When assessing employee performance in the Best-Self Review, we recommend using 15Five pre-set questions and linking those answers to objective performance measurement tools.

Strengths-Based Leadership & Performance Feedback

Our goal is to help employees understand what they do best and apply that self-knowledge to their everyday work. Employees can identify their own strengths through self-review questions such as those in scientifically valid personality tests like StrengthsFinder and VIA Character. Gathering feedback from others is another really important step.

The Reflected Best Self Exercise, a strengths discovery exercise in positive psychology, proves how impactful it is to gather feedback from many other people about when employees are at their best. Humans are ok at personal reflection, but research shows reflections gathered from others has a greater effect. Others will see strengths your employee isn’t even aware of!

Our strengths-based approach to the Best-Self Review is guided by principles from positive psychology, specifically research on flow or full engagement. Positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi reveals the secret to becoming fully absorbed in work. He shows that employees can enter a state of flow when they identify their top strengths and re-craft their work around those strengths so they use them as much as possible. Using the Best-Self Review performance management solution, managers can help employees identify their strengths and apply those strengths to their daily work.

In the Best-Self Review, we not only focus on strengths, we also acknowledge and dig deep into accomplishments. Harvard researchers, Francesca Gino and Gary Pisano, reveal how important it is to investigate the root causes of success with rigor and dig to understand what led to those wins.

Similar to the common performance management practice of asking 5 whys to identify the root cause of problems in the workplace, managers can ask the 5 whys to identify the root cause of success. Once managers understand what led to their team members accomplishments, they can help replicate those circumstances to increase the quantity and quality of wins in the future.

A Performance Management Solution Designed For Development and Growth

Here’s another myth – employees don’t want constructive feedback. Neuroscience research shows that employees don’t want unsolicited feedback. It’s not the constructive part that’s the issue. It’s important to remember that the opportunity to learn and grow is one of the highest drivers of employee engagement! It’s the employees that don’t receive constructive feedback and don’t grow that end up packing their bags. With the Best-Self Review, employees solicit constructive feedback from peers and their manager.

Reframe Weaknesses as Future Growth Opportunities:
The Best-Self Review is a talent management system intentionally designed for more frequent check-ins on future growth and development. Our design is inspired by Stanford professor, Carol Dweck’s research on the growth mindset. First, we enable the growth mindset through more frequent check ins, rather than a once a year focus on past performance. This is inherent in our recommended cadence of bi-annual or quarterly reviews.

Conversations should not only be more frequent, they should also focus on the future. In other words, a growth process should be more forward facing than backward. Traditional performance reviews focus primarily on the past. Our rule of thumb for a Quarterly Review is 1/3 backward looking and 2/3 forward looking.

Another way we encourage the growth mindset is by framing our feedback questions towards growth opportunities rather than fixating on weaknesses. Skills and traits are not fixed and people have a huge capacity to learn, grow and develop into better versions of themselves. This is especially true when people are surrounded by others who believe in their potential and abilities.

When employees view their own abilities as fixed and only see darkness when they face a challenge, managers can light the path forward and show them a new way of thinking and doing. The point is to help employees take incremental steps forward towards continued development rather than focus solely on what went wrong in the past. The Best-Self Review provides managers with a performance management framework for conversations that both inspire and motivate employees towards growth and development.

The Best-Self Review Is Impact Focused:
Research from Wharton professor, Adam Grant highlights the importance of connecting employees to the impact of their their work. When employees reflect and become more aware of how their work impacts other people, motivation and productivity spike. So how can managers help employees become more aware of their own impact?

Our question design in the Best-Self Review orients us in a new impact-focused direction. We encourage both team members and managers to envision how their work will make a difference. It’s important to take a step back and use a broader lens to identify the meaning and purpose driving work based on its impact on others.

We believe all managers can place employees on a full-fledged growth trajectory toward their best self. Imagine a world where employees and managers are excited about their next review. And instead of feeling judged and graded, employees walk away from their conversation feeling inspired and developed.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this far, stay tuned for a deep dive into all of the social science research behind our new Best-Self Review in our upcoming whitepaper coming soon!

Courtney Bigony is Director of People Science at 15Five, continuous performance management software that includes weekly check-ins, objectives (OKR) tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and reviews. She is also the founder of The Deep Feedback Movement, where she provides actionable insights for People Teams based on the latest social science research, and a Fellow at the Center for Evidence Based Management.