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Shifting the Perspective on Performance Appraisals

By Hannah Yung-Boxdell

There is significant chatter about the slow, sure death of the performance appraisal as we know it. Former Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey has famously renounced the annual review in favor of “continuous feedback” as have many other technology and professional services organizations in recent years.

Annual performance appraisals are widely unpopular. For many workers, they are a source of anxiety1 and the subject of various criticisms such as unfairness, and even inaccurate or counterproductive outcomes due to poor application.2,3 However, for every detractor, there are two more who wish they received more feedback on their performance from their employer.4

Performance appraisals are the structure to which all feedback is attached, making them indispensable. Given this, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to consider alternatives to the status quo as an evolution of the performance appraisal, rather than a funeral?

Let’s Not Oversimplify

Presenting “continuous communication” as a silver bullet to the tradition of annual reviews misses the mark by oversimplifying both the problem and the solution. At best, the intention of this idea is to add to the existing tradition with more regular feedback, in which case, it’s hardly groundbreaking. At worst, though, it misdirects attention from an abdication of organizational responsibility towards employees by replacing clear, in-depth communication with mere frequent communication.

Instead, we, as leaders, managers, and organizations, should aim to be more authentic in the way we consider our current circumstances, and update our thinking and responsibilities to meet our present challenges.

Contextual Considerations

In an ever-tightening talent market, the satisfaction and retention of employees is seen as increasingly vital to organizational success. Numerous workplace research reports indicate that employees want career advancement and will leave organizations where such opportunities are lacking.5

In what organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, has called a permacrisis of “languish,” where employees feel stuck with low motivation amidst circumstances marked by prolonged uncertainty, organizations can buoy employees by helping them rekindle a sense of purpose and understand how to achieve goals.6

Where We’ve Come From

We know that workers of today treat employment relationships as more temporary than they did 50 years ago2, which is an indicator of a different psychological contract between employers and employees than what was experienced by our 20th century predecessors.

Unfortunately, this changed reality does not seem to be universally recognized, as business publications are rife with articles discussing “quiet quitting,” “lazy girl jobs,” and various versions of the old refrain “no one wants to work anymore!” Less dramatic, but no less prevalent is the idea that employees must be the sole shepherd of their own career development, while managers serve only as disciplinarians, monitoring behavior and performance for the purpose of correcting transgressions.

The framing utilized in these stances overlooks the impact of organizations’ lessened investment in employees during recent decades. No longer can employees count on decades of work in an organization to translate into reciprocal loyalty. Pensions are a modern folklore, and career advancement opportunities are like Easter eggs in a world of “leaner” organizations.

If organizations want to retain talent, they need to update their suite of offerings to match current circumstances. For instance, if career ladders have become sparse in the age of lean organizations, leaders should consider constructing career lattices to provide options for their talent.7

Performance appraisals, therefore, present an opportunity for organizations to invest in a new psychological contract! A contract that recognizes the different scenery of today and builds systems to work now and in the future, rather than in the past.

The Mental Shift

We must shift the way we think about performance, and whose responsibility it is to nurture it. Simply, organizations must commit to a higher level of responsibility in providing fertile grounds for employees’ career development. By accepting this responsibility, the appraisal process can serve as a keystone for talent management; a strategic imperative for organizations to retain talent and sustain succession pipelines.

In a world with an increasing pace of technological advancement, the future of work lies in creating the best conditions for human assets (i.e., employees).8 Our approach to creating these conditions must similarly rely on our human assets to succeed (i.e., managers). To accomplish this, we must move beyond procedural scripting and support managers by outlining key behaviors in managing performance.

Revisiting the Basics of Performance Appraisals

It is hard to imagine effectively supporting employees in their career development without engaging in some sort of rating process to evaluate and document employees’ current performance, and to help chart a path towards future goals. Clear communication around performance expectations is necessary for employees, and engaging in this communication is an opportunity for managers to signal what is important and create an open environment.9 Furthermore, employee participation in the appraisal process boosts confidence and feelings of fairness in the process.3

Constructive performance appraisal systems require multiple basic components:

Though the familiar annual performance evaluation may often miss one or more of these points, most commonly the missing factor is regular communication for the purpose of timely feedback. This is the misguided silver bullet idea mentioned previously. But consider what it signifies: managers being prescribed a single scripted action to solve a ubiquitous, complex problem.

It should also be remembered that rating systems are tools, meant to serve as a guide for a consistent application of standards. Their use provides the benefit of forcing organizations and managers to explicitly define their expectations, and what success looks like. In this way, rating systems are a starting point in the effort to communicate expectations to employees, not the end. Additionally, the use of a standardized approach enhances the legal defensibility of performance management decisions (when implemented consistently and equitably).

Developing Human Assets Requires Human Investment

It’s worth noting that many researchers contend that the difference between successful and unsuccessful performance management systems are due to factors of implementation, rather than design.9 Thus, our solutions must push beyond simplistic notions and procedural information (such as how often feedback should be provided) to include behavioral touchpoints.

Managers must engage in real interaction, investing time and mental resources to understand career aspirations of direct reports and help find a path that will align these with organizational needs. This process cannot be reduced to a standard operating procedure, though it can be guided by one. A future focused on developing human assets requires continuous investment by actual humans.

Putting It Together

When we accept the value of the performance appraisals and the necessity of human investment, it becomes clear that we are not discarding the aforementioned components in favor of regular communication alone, as regular communication about poorly defined performance is useless.

Therefore, the only death in this evolution is the labor being done by the word “annual.” Employees at all levels require feedback more than once a year to engage in meaningful dialog with their supervisors, understand performance expectations, share their own career aspirations, set goals, and discuss progress. While reliance on solitary annual performance reviews may be retired, the elements of the appraisal process must be retained, and further supplemented with managerial time and energy.

Bottom Line

Organizational leaders, managers, and supervisors must consider employee performance and growth as part of their own jobs. Simply put, if a manager does not know the career aspirations of their direct report(s), engage in planning to align these with organizational goals, and maintain awareness of individual progress, the manager is not adequately performing in their role.

Ultimately, this shift in framing must be underwritten at the organizational level. Performance standards, evaluation tools, and guidance should be developed at the organizational level and dispersed, rather than leaving groups to navigate this function disjointedly.

At the same time, tools must be flexible to accommodate adaptations according to variance in group function. Managers should receive training on how to use these tools and communicate effectively with their staff. Additionally, organizations must properly incentivize the appropriate use of their system, tying desired outcomes to manager performance at all levels, including setting realistic expectations of manager responsibilities and workload to allow them the time to perform this work.

Performance appraisals are an opportunity and a tool for organizations to invest, develop, and retain their talent during an era when human assets are becoming more essential than ever! Organizations, leaders, and managers would do well to upskill themselves accordingly.


1 Goldberg, E. (2015). Performance Management for a 21st Century Organization (SHRM Conference, 2015) . YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSsuG1xaQfE

2 Cascio, W. F., & Aguinis, H. (2019). Applied Psychology in Talent Management (8th ed.). Sage Publications.

3 Roberts, G. E. (2002). Employee Performance Appraisal System Participation: A Technique That Works. Public Personnel Management, 31(3), 333–342. https://doi.org/10.1177/009102600203100306

4 Lipman, V. (2016, August 8). 65% of employees want more feedback (so why don’t they get it?) Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/victorlipman/2016/08/08/65-of-employees-want-more-feedback-so-why-dont-they-get-it/?sh//=34a921ff914a

5 Baskin, K. (2023, June 13). To keep employees, focus on career advancement. MIT Sloan School of Management. https://mitsloan.mit.edu/ideas-made-to-matter/to-keep-employees-focus-career-advancement

6 Yildirim, E. (2023, November 15). Wharton psychologist on the 3 biggest challenges facing workers right now: ‘We have a responsibility’ to make them better. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2023/11/15/wharton-psychologist-adam-grant-on-the-3-biggest-challenges-facing-workers-right-now.html

7 Veldsman, D. (n.d.) Career lattice: How to shift from traditional career ladders. Academy to Innovate HR. https://www.aihr.com/blog/career-lattice/

8 n.a. (2022, March 31). The future of work: Reimagining the work, workforce, and workplace of the future. Deloitte. https://www.deloitte.com/an/en/services/consulting/perspectives/future-of-work.html

9 Biron, M., Farndale, E., & Paauwe, J. (2011). Performance management effectiveness: lessons from world-leading firms. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 22(6), 1294–1311.

Hannah Yung-Boxdell is the Administrative Director and Chief of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) at W-Trans. She is currently working on her master’s in Applied Industrial-Organizational Psychology at George Mason University, and is a Certified Diversity Professional (CDP). In her current role, Hannah works on projects related to process improvement, performance management, and organizational transformation efforts. She can be reached at hyungboxdell@gmail.com.