Think performance reviews motivate employees? Think again.

An interesting article was published in The Washington Post a couple of weeks ago about employee performance reviews confirmed something I’ve believed – Performance reviews serve to demotivate employees, not encourage them to improve.

As someone who has had to give and receive performance reviews, I know they are an uncomfortable experience for everyone involved. Somehow, the process is justified by the belief reviews encourage employees to perform better. Now, research help refute this belief.

Studies by psychologists at Kansas State University, Eastern Kentucky University and Texas A&M University looked at how employees respond to negative feedback received in a performance review. While they began with the hypothesis that people who are motivated by a real desire to learn would respond well to critical feedback in a performance review and use it to improve their work without many complaints, they found they were wrong.

The Post article states “Those who like to learn—presumably some of the best employees—were significantly bothered by the negative feedback they received. The research is a reminder not only of how much people dislike criticism, but of how dangerous performance review tools like rankings and ratings can be.”

Researchers asked 234 staffers at a large southwestern university to rate their feelings about a performance review they received three months earlier. They also asked them how much they liked learning new skills, and how much they avoid situations where they might perform poorly. Not surprisingly, those who were most concerned about what other people think hated the negative feedback they got in reviews.

The surprise in the findings was people most intent on learning were still significantly unhappy with the constructive criticism they had received. “We thought if anything they’d be able to take it and apply it to their own jobs,” researcher Satoris Culbertson notes, “But they simply don’t like negative feedback, either.”

While I did not find these results surprising, they demonstrate the waste of time and energy spent on the performance review process. If even the group of employees we would presume to be our best take criticism in performance reviews negatively, the entire process would seem to be a negative for employers and employees. Any benefit from what is meant to be a helpful process is lost once the employee hears criticism.

Managers spend considerable time and effort on preparing annual performance reviews. Given the limited benefit to reviews shown in this study, there has to be a better way to help employees. A process based in continuous improvement, with ongoing feedback instead of only annual reviews, can help employees move forward while minimizing the anxiety and other negatives of annual reviews.

About CALMC Blog

Columbus Area Labor-Management Committee is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to involving employers and employees to preserve jobs, resolve workplace issues, and promote labor-management cooperation. Visit our website at
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