Employee Reviews

Hacking Performance Reviews to be more Palatable and Positive

by Scott Crabtree

As a former programmer, I’m very familiar with “hacks”: short-cuts or tricks to get something working better. You may be familiar with “life hacking“, using a similar approach to finding novel ways to improve life.

I want to extend that concept to create “happiness hacks”. Happiness hacks are simply new ways of boosting happiness at work. Today I’m introducing that concept with three hacks to the traditional performance review. Many of you may be approaching mid-year reviews. Anyone who gets or gives reviews should be thinking about them more than once a year.

Hack #1: Have employees self-review first

The Technique: Have every employee write the first draft of their own review. This draft is then reviewed with the manager, who writes the final version.

The Science: We are wired for status. Whether we are talking about baboon troops or British civil servants, higher status generally equals more happiness. Lower status equals more stress. When a boss gives an employee a review, it immediately activates status issues and alarms for the recipient, who by definition is lower status. By having the employee write their own review (at least the first draft) those status issues are removed. Jennifer is always same status as herself. Jose is not threatened by his own status. By doing self-feedback–which should be a regular practice, not just at annual review time–the initial set of thoughts are received without status issues making the recipient defensive.

Hack #2: Say three positive things for every one negative (if possible)

The Technique: Write or edit the review–and practice the verbal review–so that it contains three positive remarks about the recipient for every negative one.

The Science: Research by Barbara Frederickson, Marcel Losada, and others has discovered the 3:1 ratio of positivity to negativity that keeps brains feeling safe and working well. The scientists looked at 60 teams doing annual business planning–among other groups–and found that the best performing teams had over three positive comments for every one negative. 3:1 (or 2.901:1 to be precise, since Losada is a Ph.D. in math) is a tipping point. If a review (or any other communication) has three positive for every one negative comment, the exchange feels positive. The recipient feels safe and her brain works well. If the number of positive comments for every negative comment falls below three, the recipient feels threatened, gets toward “fight or flight” mode, and the discussion stops being productive. Some employees deserve overwhelmingly negative reviews, and must get them. But most employees have earned at least three positive bits of feedback for every one negative.

Hack #3: Develop strengths, not weaknesses

The Technique: When giving development feedback, focus on strengths to be developed, not fixing weaknesses (unless absolutely necessary).

The Science: Extensive data from Gallup and others shows the benefits of playing to strengths, including increased happiness, engagement, customer satisfaction, and retention. Data also suggests areas of strength are our best opportunities for growth. As a result of a speed reading class, for example, slow readers improved 50%, while faster readers improved 600%. Some weaknesses–an inability to talk to peers, for example–must be addressed. But most weaknesses should be made irrelevant. If you had Micheal Jordan on your team, would you tell him to work on his weak baseball skills, or to focus on developing his amazing basketball skills in order to lead the team to another NBA championship? Too often in reviews we find what people are bad at and tell them to spend more time and energy there. Often the best review–for the employee and the organization–is one that encourages the recipient to keep doing and developing what they are very good at.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments here or on the Happy Brain Science Facebook page.

Scott Crabtree

As the Founder and Chief Happiness Officer at Happy Brain Science, Scott Crabtree empowers individuals and organizations to apply findings from cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology to boost productivity and happiness at work.


3 thoughts on “Hacking Performance Reviews to be more Palatable and Positive

  1. “so that it contains three positive remarks about the recipient for every positive one.”

    I think you mean “so that it contains three positive remarks about the recipient for every n0egative one.”

  2. Your article is a must read for managers, Scott!

    J.W. Marriott once said “Take care of your people and they will take care of your customers.” If we hurt staff with their performance reviews they will probably feel demotivated towards work which will also result to poor business performance.

    It’s given that employees are not perfect and everyone has mistakes but if you know how to say it well to them, they will be more likely to develop their strengths and work on their weakness.

    Here is a recent infographic about performance reviews: https://www.findmyshift.com/employee-performance-reviews-productive-or-destructive . Do you think it’s productive or destructive?

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