27 September 2023

Boosting retention: Review for projects, not performance

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Meghan M. Biro* says managers concerned with retention need to rethink how they conduct performance reviews.

If you’re ramping up for Q4 in your workplace, you may be anticipating a slew of quarterly performance reviews.

It’s your manager’s last chance of the year to address recent performance issues, map out a plan for improvement, and set a goal for what’s next year.

But if you’re concerned with retention, you may want to reconsider.

Performance reviews, depending on how they’re done, may not have the right tone to fit the turbulent world of work we’re in right now.

They may not support your engagement and retention challenges.

Employees are jumpy — and while feedback is always a good idea, it may all be in the delivery and the framework.

What works instead?

Take a project-based approach — in which feedback and reviews are based on specific projects rather than overall performance over time.

It avoids focusing on trickier metrics like behaviour and “commitment” and provides a picture of a given situation and a given challenge.

And it creates a clear boundary between life and work at a time when many of our workforces are seeing those lines blur.

The day-to-day of a given job may be filled with ebbs and flows that didn’t exist when performance review criteria was designed.

Particularly in categories like “attitude,” “willingness,” or “energy.” But a project is a project: you get it done.

Projects and teams are already on the rise

The world of work is already shifting to projects as an increment of production instead of focusing simply on time.

A project-based approach to the workplace is already a reality for a growing number of organizations.

Of course, there are industries that traditionally lend themselves to project-based cadences of work.

Industries such as marketing, advertising and content, engineering, legal firms, consultancies, and other service providers.

But even high-service industries can shift to projects — framing work into initiatives, special efforts, campaigns, and quotas.

Taking this approach can bring your people together as a team.

And we’re seeing the rise of teams — Deloitte’s research on the power of high-performance teams to catalyse organizational growth is pretty compelling.

We divide into teams to better structure communications channels within digital workplaces, to forge accountability, to better manage, and to create a unit we can rely on.

Projects and teams go hand in hand: a team executes on a project, essentially — and may interact with other teams, but they have a specific role, specific tasks.

That actually frees up a manager to track a whole lot more in terms of individual input and contributions, responsiveness, creativity, and the ability to work in a group — and as reflected in the outcome of the project they were a part of.

Anchored to specific targets

The uneasy truth may be that many organizations wonder if performance reviews are working, but don’t have an alternative.

But this is the era of transformation — like it or not, we transformed where and when and how we work out of necessity.

It’s a reality right now that employees are stressed — and a bit jumpy if you look at the Great Resignation.

So consider the fact that just 14 per cent of employees agree their performance review inspires them to improve, according to Gallup research.

Further, traditional performance reviews and approaches to feedback can take a psychological toll — actually making performance worse about one-third of the time, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

No one wants to unintentionally build more resentment instead of more engagement, best intentions aside.

I’ve seen plenty of well-designed performance reviews that stay brilliantly on specifics.

But one of the common objections employees have to performance reviews is that the criteria can feel vague; in that grey area may live bias, unfairness, arbitrariness, etc.

Going granular may alleviate that: you’re looking at clear tasks delineated within the arc of a project: beginning, middle, completion.

There’s closure.

A sense of accomplishment.

Finishing something feels good — and deserves credit.

It may offer a tactful cantilever to other issues that need to be addressed.

And there’s no question that each individual’s contribution to that project — and their own experience being a part of it— offer countless opportunities for feedback, for clarification, and for recognition.

Reflecting what’s happening now

Is taking a project-based approach to reviews feasible for most organizations? It could be more feasible than you think.

It fits the changes the world of work is already undergoing, and: factors many organizations are already experiencing:

  • An increase in bringing in gig workers, SMEs, and consultants that either complement existing skills among our salaried workforces or expand them as necessary — and therefore redefining the essence of a team.
  • A shift from depending on the overall cohesion of a physical workplace to a remote and hybrid one, where people don’t come together organically but over the work they do.
  • A new emphasis on flexible scheduling and more work/life integration — seeing the job as a series of projects rather than a monolithic block of time no matter what happens.
  • A need to integrate faster into operations and get employees aligned before that 3-6 month period when many consider leaving: A recent survey of some 2,000 U.S. employees found that more than half (52 per cent) were already on the hunt for a new position after being in their present one for less than 3 months.
  • A workforce in which teams, no matter their composition, can autonomously and independently execute, and a well-managed or self-managed team is becoming the essential engine of production (more than individual output) and a key part of the organizational chart.

A resilient framework

Recently the Harvard Business Review pointed to the resiliency of a project framework: instead of focusing on process and controls, it focuses on how to deliver the elements with the greatest value.

It’s not a leap to see how that approach could also remove bias (such as recency) and grey areas from the equation, making the effort more about purpose, intent, strategy, goals, execution, and lessons learned.

In terms of HR and talent management, that kind of shift immediately opens the door for feedback and self-reflection on the part of its participants and makes self-observation part of growth.

In essence, it democratizes the review process by making it more clear.

Depending on the size and nature of your organization, performance reviews may be a critical factor in your talent management strategy.

But adding project-focused reviews to the mix adds a concrete benefit.

A tangible means to gauge people’s efforts to achieve real results, in real-time.

It’s also a smaller-scale way to build larger-scale results: as we know, growth happens in increments and iterations, not whole-cloth.

No question, it’s easier to drive alignment and achieve collaboration across a team focused on a project.

So take that sense of accomplishment, focus on it and celebrate it, and then do that over again.

In terms of employee engagement, that can create a truly strong foundation — and more reason for them to stay.

*Meghan M. Biro founded TalentCulture in 2008 to lead a conversation about the future of work with her peers in HR and leadership.

This article first appeared at talentculture.com.

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