Talent B.S.

How Performance Reviews Create Awful Bosses

Managers don’t set out to treat employees poorly. The misguided culture at most corporations forces them to do it.

By Samuel A. Culbert, Ph.D.

My MBA students have a funny way of pointing me out to their friends. “When it comes to bullshit,” they say, “that professor wrote the book.” 

It’s true. The book is called Beyond Bullshit,and it isn’t as much about B.S. as it is about the subtitle: Straight-Talk at Work. I’ve spent the better part of my career advocating for honesty, which is the core component in building trust. In fact, no management tool is better at promoting company effectiveness than trusting relationships.

Still, after writing my book, I inevitably carved out a reputation as the bullshit guy. At an academic conference, someone asked me, “What’s the biggest bullshit management practice of them all?” 

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I answered without hesitation: “The annual pay and performance review.” 

Suddenly, I found myself going on and on about what I found so fundamentally damaging about this ridiculous ritual. 

Put simply, the performance review allows bad managers to get away with bad behavior and prevents good managers from having the straight-talk relationships and employee conversations that get the best results for their companies. 

When I took my crusade to the Wall Street Journal in 2008, I struck a chord with fellow haters. Within one week, my op-ed provoked some 400 letters to the editor, many written by people who hate receiving performance reviews—but especially by people who hate giving them. In fact, the only pitchfork wielders who disagreed with my premise were HR executives whose livelihoods depend on the continuation of the practice.

So I decided to lay out my complete case in another book: Get Rid of the Performance Review: How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing, and Focus on What Really Matters.Point by point, my co-writer and I decimated every argument made by those who laud performance reviews, which are based on bogus and fraudulent reasoning.

We debunked the alleged positives, exposed non-obvious negatives, and pointed out the complicit role in perpetuating them performed by HR people, who can see better than anybody the true damage reviews really do. It seemed to us that they, more than any other discipline, derived organizational stature and power from insisting on a practice that few managers wanted to perform. 

We argued strongly that companies could gain from managers creating a straight-talk environment, where employees had nothing to lose from speaking candidly. And our prescription for that was to replace performance reviews with performance previews—subbing out the reviewing of performance after problems occurred with a system that kept them from occurring in the first place. The addition of just one letter can convert an effectiveness-hampering, morale-destroying, and divisive practice into a positive. 

Having spent so much time investigating and exposing dysfunctional management practices, I felt the need to face up to the ugly fact that bad management behavior takes place far too often to be called the exception. I’ve always defined management as helping others accomplish the company’s goals while advancing everyone’s personal goals at the same time. That’s what most managers tell themselves they’re giving, but too few employees see themselves receiving.

I now saw a bigger problem and felt the need to step back and investigate. What’s the source of the erroneous thinking that leads to bad management practices and short-sightedness? Why do so many well-meaning, good-intentioned people act so badly when performing managerial functions, and what makes them so oblivious to the negatives their actions inflict? 

I wasn’t interested in why bad people do bad things. Instead, I wanted to find out why our best and brightest leaders engage in behavior that contradicts what experience has already taught them. The results of my research can be found in my new book, Good People, Bad Managers: How Work Culture Corrupts Good Intentions.

In it, I describe the force field in which most managers find themselves working. I wanted to increase awareness of the basis for the insecurity and apprehension that sweeps over people when they’re managing, especially in large organizations. 

Here’s what I found: Bosses don’t set out to treat their employees poorly. Instead, managers are too preoccupied with small crises of their own makings, and that lack of focus causes them to dole out bad behavior. 

The performance review, my arch nemesis, is example number one. So many companies still give them because they think they’re the only way to let employees know the areas in which they need to improve. But let’s take a step back to look at the bigger problem involved: Performance reviews deprive managers of the authentic feed-back employees could give them, which in turn would lead the bosses to self-reflect and improve their managerial performance on their own.

With performance reviews, bosses never hear what they’re doing wrong. They continue self-deluding that the bad things they’re doing are good—and the blame rests with the employee.

I’ve also identified and examined the false thinking that takes place in so-called progressive companies that have gotten rid of performance reviews, but insist on rewarding high per-formers with discretionary end-of-year bonuses.

Make no mistake: This progressiveness is just an illusion. The employee still is motivated to suck up and tell the boss what he or she wants to hear—in other words, bullshit as usual. The boss is still in control, and there’s been no advance in managerial thinking.

It’s no wonder that year after year, Gallup polling concludes that around 80 percent of managers lack the skills to manage competently. But managers aren’t actually missing those skills—they just don’t have the thought processes for dealing with people as they wonderfully and imperfectly are. 

I see the core problem as the work culture’s requirements for good managerial behavior. I see it corrupting people’s thinking with erroneous assumptions that lead man-agers to override common sense. Good people are made insecure by losing their inner compass and feeling the need to pretend. 

This culture has to change, but it lacks leaders who will force that change. I can’t help but draw comparisons to gun culture, where even NRA members believe new policies are needed. Yet, each sub-constituency is reluctant to support any modification for fear of losing something unanticipated. 

Until fundamental changes are enacted, people who feel they’re succeeding will prefer the devil they know to the practices they’ve yet to try. When you think about it, this reasoning makes a lot of sense: Why remove a prop that could destabilize what one fought so long and hard to achieve? 

Besides, who wants to face the embarrassment of realizing that some good management behavior was mostly good for oneself, not nearly so good for others, and that the schism was obvious from the start?

If that isn’t management by bullshit, then I don’t know what is.

Samuel A. Culbert, Ph.D., is a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and also the author of several bestselling books, including Get Rid of the Performance Review, Beyond Bullshit, and his most recent, Good People, Bad Managers: How Work Culture Corrupts Good Intentions.