THIS is what needs to replace performance reviews

What if we replaced the traditional performance review with something called career conversations?

Let’s follow a bouncing ball here quickly. Some companies — including some big, legacy ones — are removing the idea of performance reviews. This is logical. Performance reviews are mostly a dumpster fire more rooted in process than, well, actually improving the employee being evaluated. There’s been research for years that killing performance reviews will actually develop employees quicker. But, you know, change is hard. That’s Issue 1. Issue 2 is that performance reviews are one of the only things HR truly “owns,” and a lot of work is about telling everyone else what you “own” process-wise. If the performance review goes away, does that make HR less relevant? It might.

Issue 3 is this: when you remove performance reviews, what do you replace them with? In a lot of companies, that answer has been “absolutely nothing.” Here is what’s happening. Most hard-charging guys running point at different companies don’t really care about this idea of performance reviews or employee development. They have their lieutenants. They know their silo. The rest of it is just noise to them. Who wants to sit and evaluate 14 drones who will never get to the level I’m at, right? I need to go analyze some revenue plays, not do this HR bullshit.

That’s the general attitude you see with a lot of chest-pounding workaholics. Performance reviews are “fluffy HR stuff,”and they are “money guys.” So when the performance review gets axed, they basically replace it with nothing. “Everyone should know where they stand,” the theory goes. This is almost completely untrue, but whatever. We’ll gloss that over for right now.

What if we replaced tire fire performance reviews with something more significant?

I could write this post and discuss something like “organic feedback given consistently,” but we all know that’s bullshit. Most people spend their entire work week worshiping at The Temple of Busy. When you worship there, you have no time for “organic feedback.” It’s a giant myth. Out of every 20 managers, I’d say 2–3 are capable of doing that successfully. Most are just running between meetings and calls and updating spreadsheets for their boss. This is most of first-world, white-collar work — to the tune of 21.4 million managers adding no economic value. Sad.

But look, if we’re killing performance reviews anyway — good! — can’t we replace it with this career conversations idea?

What are career conversations, exactly?

I’m assuming you can figure this out logically, but if not, here’s the article where I got the idea. In that article, career conversations are defined as “deep, meaningful dialogue coupled with action plans around measurable goals.” Sounds like a deplorable mix of business buzzwords, but I think you get the general idea here. Here’s the money quote on all of it:

“I’ve seen this play out in practice over and over and over. People are surprised that they can grow towards their dreams and stay put in their current role,” says Laraway. “This is one of the side benefits to this approach to career conversations. It can reduce any ants-in-the-pants of wanting to leave or be promoted. As a manager, one of your prime jobs is to help the people on your team develop.”

If you’re wondering who “Laraway” is, try this video.

If this stuff interests you, I’d read that whole article above. It does have a lot of practical advice on career conversations.

What would career conversations look like?

One of the ideas mentioned above is “be their Barbara Walters,” which means this. You schedule a 1-hour meeting with a direct report. You ask them real, probing, pertinent questions about their life and career to this point. Why did they make this decision? How about that one? This is a very rare experience for most first-world, white-collar employees. Their managers tend to only talk to them when they (a) fuck up or (b) the manager needs something. This real, deep, connected type of conversation — career conversations! — is very rare. You gotta assume it would be powerful.

Some questions that could frame career conversations might include:

  • You’ve been in this role for (x-amount of time). What are the pros and cons?
  • Are there any responsibilities you’d like to try that you haven’t?
  • What do you see as the next step?
  • Does the work of any other department interest you?
  • Concerns about pay or the middle/top being clogged?
  • Are you aware how promotion decisions are made here?
  • How do you think you could grow?
  • Where do you want to be in 12, 18, 24, 30, and 36 months?

Now look, some of this is overwhelming. An employee might have no idea. It’s a very different type of conversation than we’re used to having or being in. It’ll take some getting-used-to. But consider this …

What’s the central difference between a performance review and career conversations?

A performance review looks backward. Career conversations look forward. Isn’t business supposed to be about growth and moving forward? Right. So shouldn’t how we develop employees be aligned towards the future and not the past?

What gets in the way of these career conversations, then?

Yea, let’s examine the roadblocks. There are good managers who do this stuff — they have legit career conversations with their people and provide them with opportunities for growth. Is it rare? I’d argue it’s rare, yes. But some managers are doing it. For the rest of them, what gets in the way? I’d offer this partial list:

  • They are assholes who don’t care about people, just themselves (you don’t want this one to be true, but sometimes it is)
  • The belief is that they have no time to worry about this (backed up by this research)
  • Their own career wasn’t necessarily shaped in this way, so they think it’s unnecessary to provide to others
  • Predominantly view their job as “making numbers” for their boss, and focus 99 percent of their attention there
  • Career conversations seem so different, they don’t know where to start
  • Believe process is sacrosanct, and HR has not defined a process for how to have career conversations

Alright. Now we have some ways to conduct career conversations (yay) and some roadblocks to them (boo). What now?

Could career conversations actually work?

Of course. Some things would need to happen, though. Primarily:

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

There would need to be a process in place: Most people at any job are afraid of doing something sans process. They fear they will get in trouble. Process exists to cover your ass and make you feel better about what’s happening. That’s why it’s so pervasive at companies, which strive to limit liability in the broadest sense. So if HR needs to “own” career conversations, so be it. There needs to be a process or else no one will know where to begin.

Data: You need to be able to say, “We instituted career conversations as opposed to performance reviews. When we did that, turnover decreased by X-percent. Because of that, we saved Y-money this year.” You hand that report to an executive and they will say “Oooooh, more money. This career conversations bullshit is working! Sign me up for another year!”

Embracing awkwardness: These are inherently awkward conversations to have because we’re all so used to “On professionalism, you got a 7 on a 1–10 scale. That is pretty good!” Even though the “7” means absolutely nothing, we understand what it’s like to be in that conversation. This notion of career conversations is much different. We all have to adjust.

Punch the box-checking in the throat: And now, the final section.

Career conversations is not about box-checking

A lot of white-collar work is about box-checking. Update this. Tell me about that. Make sure that thing is done because we’ve always done it that specific way. It’s dumb. Most intelligent people eventually tire of all that garbage. Some want a fat-ass paycheck and bonus, though, so they tolerate it. Economic stagnation is unfortunately making that worse. Alas.

This idea of career conversations is not box-checking. It’s completely real and raw. As noted in this article:

“The idea is to try to get employees to start to talk to you about their dreams, or three to five of them if they don’t really want to commit to one idea. None of it should be time-bound — no 10-year plans. Ask what this person would be doing at the pinnacle of his or her career — when they’re feeling challenged, engaged and not wanting anything else.”

You’re talking about the apex. The pinnacle. The summit! This is real stuff. It ain’t checking boxes. Most of what emerges from HR — and dozens of other departments — is checking boxes. If that’s all you know and are comfortable with, this will never work for you. But if you can push the edges, career conversations just might.

My name is Ted Bauer. The way we think on people’s careers is a joke. So I try to shift some of that thinking… where I can.