Crime of the Perfect Review

I just got forwarded an amazing thing: a perfect performance review. Actually, if you’re a manager or, especially a manager of managers, you’ve probably seen more than one of these in your career. The performance review with nothing but the highest possible scores, and not a word of anything that even remotely sounds like criticism. These reviews are a crime, a lie, and, most importantly, a missed opportunity.

The Mythical Perfect Employee

This perfect review is a crime, because top people are your most valuable resource. As I said in my post on Microsoft’s recent performance review changes, you should spend at least as much time and effort on nurturing and aiding your top employees as you do in cleaning out the bottom ones.

It has been said many times that top employees aren’t simply better, or twice as good as your average employee, but as much as ten times more productive. They deeply understand the mission, handle things without constant supervision, take on new parts of the challenge without being asked (or prodded), and they get it done more efficiently and with better work quality.

If you are lucky enough to have these people, they deserve all the love and kindness, and all the help to grow, that you can afford. Giving them a perfect review, especially to people who know they are good, is likely to get a “yeah, great, fine, whatever…” response. That is a crime of missed opportunity.

Here you sit, with a clear star of an employee, they are doing great work, all that you can throw at them, and they want more. You have your semi-annual review and they come into your office for their feedback, knowing they’ve done well. Yes, of course, you need to tell them, in no uncertain terms, that they did great work. You need to clearly say (out loud, to their face, and even if you both already know it) what they’ve done, how wonderfully they’ve done it, and how much you appreciate that hard work. They, and you, really need to make sure this gets said and that they very much feel appreciated. It’s simply never said enough, and can’t be said too much.

Give a superstar nowhere to go in your organization, they will go elsewhere to find it

And then you need to say “but…”. Yes, you really have to say the “but…”. You need to point out a couple of areas where they need to work a little harder or somewhat differently. Perfection is impossible, and everyone has something they can do better. Perhaps they need to play better with the other children, perhaps they need to spend less time in the break room, perhaps they need to go home every now and then, for gosh sakes. Whatever it is, you need to give these superstars some place to go. Everyone needs a goal, everyone needs something to shoot for. Give a superstar nowhere to go in your organization, they will go elsewhere to find it. And that’s the last thing you want.

When I’ve told people this before, they tell me: “but I have to give Fred a perfect review, or I can’t get them the [raise, promotion, bonus] they truly deserve.” Horse-hockey. Your senior managers are almost certainly not idiots and they realize that everyone has somewhere to go. They will in fact look down on you for giving this review with such lame feedback. And if your system doesn’t allow people to get a [raise, promotion, bonus] without a flawless review, the system is broken, and you, as a member of the management team, have an obligation to work toward its repair. Start by giving an obvious superstar meaningful review feedback and also that [raise, promotion, bonus].

The perfect performance review is a crime, a crime of missed opportunity. Those who commit it deserve to be punished, or at least to have their perfect employee promoted above them…