The Contribution System and Performance

It really is all about the conversation


Being focused in an conversation with another person is important most anytime, but especially during a performance review. Last time, I wrote about a couple of ways to bring more focus to an appraisal. This next step in the progression begins to move away from traditional configurations of this important institutional process.

Start by considering that an individual’s performance is part of a much larger context, or system. This can seem at cross purposes to the whole point of an appraisal, but I’d like to suggest it is a more realistic and fair way to review performance.

Ask who or what contributed to the results this person achieved. Certainly the appraisee had something to do with the way things turned out, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place. Looked at closely, however, any outcome or result has multiple contributors. They all need to be considered if what happened is going to be repeated (or avoided).

Too often, performance reviews are about parceling out blame for something that happened. This is unproductive for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that blaming usually elicits defensiveness, strong emotion, interruptions, and arguments. Not exactly the stuff of effective conversations.

Focusing on contribution can make a potentially difficult feedback conversation about performance relatively easier and more likely to be productive.

It does not let the person being reviewed off the hook. The central notion is that a number of factors that led to the outcome we are talking about, and one of these factors was the action (or inaction) of the person being reviewed. If you intend for learning and change to take place, a surer way to get there is by adopting a forward-looking, problem-solving approach to the conversation.

The original meaning of conversation, extending from the 14th century, was the act of living with, or keeping company with. It didn’t pick up the specific sense of “talk” until around 1580. Hence conversation, especially in the sense I am using it with respect to performance appraisal, implies full engagement and commitment by the two parties.

In order to do this most effectively, more frequent, shorter interactions may be helpful. The once-a-year review comes fraught with lots of noise and baggage that can make real conversation very challenging. Increasing the frequency might also lighten the record keeping burden for everyone.