25 February 2015

Appreciative Performance Reflection: A powerful alternative for annual review season

In a recent post I critique the traditional, so-called SMART-goal-oriented, performance review, an annual ritual that most people anticipate as eagerly as they do tax season, or a visit to the dentist (not that I have anything against dentists!). Advocates of this latter-day corporate version of the auto-da-fé would insist on the necessity of setting specific, measurable, achievable, results-oriented, and time-bound goals to ensure that individuals are aligned with the overall objectives of teams, departments, divisions, and the organization as a whole, that they are objectively held to account for their responsibility towards the organization’s intended achievement, and that there is a fair and manageable mechanism to assess the relative contributions of individual team members. “Besides,” more than one command-and-control freak has assured me, “people want to know how they stack up against their peers.”

Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, and hardly a left-wing advocate of fads like holocracy, puts it very simply:
Managers don't like giving appraisals, and employees don't like getting them. Perhaps they're not liked because both parties suspect what the evidence has proved for decades: Traditional performance appraisals don't work. … Performance appraisals often don't accurately assess performance. … Performance reviews mostly reflect how well employees can ingratiate themselves with the boss. … Reviews occur too infrequently to provide meaningful feedback. … Those receiving the reviews invariably believe they are above average—and defensively resist being told that they aren't. … Performance appraisals [are] unlikely to improve performance. … Possibly the biggest issue, however, is that performance appraisals focus managers' attention on precisely the wrong thing: individual people. … By focusing on the presumed deficiencies or strengths of people, individual performance reviews divert attention from the important task of eliminating the systemic causes, such as inferior technology [not to mention problematic HR-driven systems or personally-dysfunctional managers], behind poor performance.
So what’s a possible alternative?

I recommend periodic Appreciative Performance Reflection conversations. This process derives from the Appreciative Inquiry methodology developed by David Cooperrider, from which the Discover, Dream, Design, Destiny structure is taken. It is a way of enabling a positive-focused review of one’s accomplishments in the larger context of long-term aspirations and ambitions. More than that, Appreciative Performance Reflection enables one to contextualize those accomplishments in the service of organizational and colleagues’ objectives. Using a reference group comprised of those with whom the individual mostly interacts as well as their manager, rather than simply reviewing accomplishments with one’s direct supervisor alone enables better collaboration and activity coordination among individuals, especially those working in diverse functional areas. Additionally, this process encourages more innovation and greater initiative than traditional goal setting exercises. Traditional goal-setting often provides an incentive for uninspired objectives—people quickly learn that greater rewards accrue from setting non-challenging goals.

The Appreciative Performance Reflection is ideally held with a reference group of three people chosen by each individual, which often includes the individual’s direct supervisor or manager. The reference group helps facilitate, and actively participates in, what is essentially a coaching conversation around the individual aligning their aspirations and bringing their strengths to the organization’s collective success. The participation of the reference group helps to create mutual accountability and collective responsibility. It enables organic, emergent alignment of everyone's efforts towards common successes. Ideally, the reference group process obviates the traditional necessity of a hierarchical command chain to align people’s activities so that the organization accomplishes its goals. The thinking behind this acknowledges that autonomous individuals are capable of self-organization towards common goals in a context of common understanding, a key finding of my research.

The setup and framing is roughly as follows (noting that the animating questions have been condensed for the post):

Appreciative Performance Reflection

Given your current understanding of the aspirations, high-level objectives, and business needs of our organization over the coming medium term (i.e., up to a year), please reflect on the most recent six to twelve months past, the coming six to twelve months, and one to three years ahead as you answer the Discover, Dream, Design, and Destiny questions, below.


  • Since the last reflection and formal check-in, what have been your greatest personal successes? What is it about these accomplishments that is important to you, that helped them be memorable and significant? Who contributed to your success in these accomplishments, and how?
  • Reflecting on your own personal growth, development, and transformation since our last reflection and formal check-in, how have you have changed, and how did those changes occur?
  • What is one thing about you at this point in your experience here that you want to herald to the wider organization?


  • What would you like to do more of, do differently, or do even better than you’re doing now in order for you to be even more successful and satisfied?
  • Imagine that you are in your ideal role here, doing precisely what you love, and feeling very proud and satisfied. What does that role look like? What have you done to achieve that role?


  • Which one or two aspects of the ideal role inspire you to take positive action over the next while? What initial steps can you take?


  • What resources and individuals do you want to call upon to support your aspirations? What type of support do you want from your supervisor? What resources to which you don’t have ready access would support your success over the medium term? Which from among your particular strengths will you call upon to support your progress and success towards achieving your aspirations?

Using such a framework to guide a strengths-oriented, appreciative reflection enables the desired alignment of individual’s activities among collaborative groups with whom each person interacts the most in a way that encourages people to bring their best towards achieving their – and the organization’s – aspirations.

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