Daniel Pink on Alternatives to Annual Reviews


I saw a nice article by author Daniel Pink (most recently the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us) called “Think Tank: Fix the workplace, not the workers.”

Without directly referencing Dr. W. Edwards Deming, Pink often writes about themes that are reminiscent  of Dr. Deming's most important points – in this case, the problems with the annual performance review.

We're a few months away from performance review season, but it's worth thinking about now.

In his article, Dan writes about the “millennial” generation and their need for constant workplace feedback. Older generations often think that's weird, but Dan asks a great question:

The question we should be asking isn't “What's the matter with Millennials?” Instead, we ought ask: “What's the matter with the workplace?”

Why don't people get more continuous workplace feedback? Isn't it better to get feedback (positive or negative) sooner and in smaller batches so we can improve more quickly?

Dan highlights two key flaws with annual reviews:

First, it's annual. It's hard to get better at something if you receive feedback on your performance just once a year. Think about Rafael Nadal. His job happens to be to hit tennis balls back and forth across a court. Now imagine if Nadal played tennis for an entire season – and got feedback on his performance only once a year in a 45-minute meeting with his boss. Absurd, right?

Second, performance reviews are rarely authentic conversations. More often, they are the West's form of kabuki theatre – highly stylised rituals in which people recite predictable lines in a formulaic way and hope the experience ends very quickly.

So the problem isn't that the Millennials are wrong. The problem is that they're right. The workplace is one of the most feedback-deprived places in modern life.

Dan, in the article, highlights some ideas for what you could do differently, so check it out.

What do you think? Has your organization moved beyond the annual review? What dysfunctions do you dread in this upcoming cycle?

As Dr. Deming said, in regards to many things, the one substitute for the annual review? “Leadership!”

You owe it to your employees and, if in a hospital, you owe it to your patients!

p.s. I'm planning, tentatively, to do a Podcast interview with Dan on December 6, so let me know if you have any questions for him.

Here is the podcast that we eventually did:

Check it out!

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  1. John Hunter says

    I believe the vast majority of generation target management (millennial…) are really just general management failures. Feedback is good for everyone. Technology can be used by people of any generation. People of any age don’t like organizations treating them like cogs. Lots of young people (today, in 1990, in 1970…) come into our organizations and rebel at the oppression of bad practices of various sorts and people say this new generation doesn’t value hard work…

    Good article and interview on NPR: Putting Performance Reviews On Probation

    My posts on performance appraisal – which reflect the thoughts of Deming and Scholtes that performance appraisals are harmful and don’t work (as Deming said they sound alluring, they just don’t work).

    1. Mark Graban says

      Yeah, John. It also sounds alluring to people that we punish individuals for systemic errors, but that doesn’t work either.

  2. Brian Buck says

    DRIVE is a great book and I hope your readers check it out.

    For a podcast question, I would be interested in hearing his take on how standardized work fits in with his understanding of autonomy. I wrote about how I think the concepts compliment each other but wonder what his take would be.


  3. Kevin Rutkowski says

    Our CEO recently changed our review process based on these basic concepts. He describes the changes here: http://blogs.catapultsystems.com/sgoodner/archive/2010/04/06/performance-reviews-are-obsolete.aspx

    I think it’s been a good change so far.

  4. David M. Kasprzak says

    When I read Drive, I felt like Pink’s thoughts on intrinsic motivation and how the annual performance review squanders it was a take-off from Peter Scholtes’ work in The Leaders’ Handbook. I sent an email to Dan Pink, asking him if he saw his work as an extension of Scholtes. He responded, and indicated he had not heard of it.

    For your upcoming podcast, I’m curious to know if Dan has followed up and looked at Scholtes’ work? If so, could he talk about where he thinks Drive meshes The Leader’s Handbook?

  5. Ron K (PT Wonk) says

    I’m not a fan of the performance review either… especially in relation to the highly skilled professionals that it might be targetted at. But Daniel Pink’s recommendations are hardly new. His first point is covered under the role of “reflective practice” for professionals (akin to the work on “mindfulness” in other settings). The second point is covered under various models and methods such as communities of practice (CoP), “peer review”, mentorship, and coaching. Collectively, these approaches make up the basis of continuous professional development (CPD).

    In the healthcare setting, annual reviews of clinicians are ineffective and frequently viewed with cynicism and scorn. At its worst, annual reviews could be dangerous.

    Ultimately, the issues is one of having a culture of feedback, supported by a culture of respect and trust… something that all professional organizations should aspire to.

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