Upending the Performance Review

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Visit Alexandria is the visitors’ bureau for Alexandria, Virginia, a historic city six miles south of Washington D.C. Alexandria has 150,000 residents, and 3.5 million annual visitors who contribute three-quarters of a billion dollars to the local economy. Visit Alexandria has a broad mandate but a small staff (16 full-time employees)—so it’s critical to attract and motivate an adaptable team.

A year ago, we seriously questioned whether our traditional supervisor-driven performance review process was really working for us. Everyone considered reviews as drudgery, and they rarely generated constructive feedback that improved performance or satisfaction.

Enter a Self-Directed Approach

When you have a high-performing employee, a supervisor is often reluctant to offer substantive criticism, because of the legitimate fear of demotivation. Supervisor-led reviews can tend to be less honest, and as a result, less effective at revealing real problems or opportunities. But if you flip the process around and let employees lead their own review process, the results can be far more accurate and actionable. Employees tend to be more self-critical, better attuned to the missed opportunities in their work structure, and more honest about their aspirations—particularly high performers.

Another vital benefit of the employee-led approach is that each person is only responsible for one review—his or her own. This way, supervisors avoid the traditional bottleneck they experience when reviews start to stack up on their desks. If a supervisor has five direct reports, that’s five reviews to complete on top of usual day-to-day tasks. This leads to a “just get it done” mentality, rather than the thoughtful contemplation required to make a review valuable.

While the supervisor is still actively involved in the review process of direct reports in the self-directed model, only a meeting to discuss the review is required; the final documentation is the responsibility of the employee. This process offers a win-win: the manager’s bottleneck cleared, and self-directed reviews are more accurate, better documented, and timely.

Focus on Strengths

Beyond being self-directed, Visit Alexandria’s review process is strengths-based. No one understands a job better than the person doing it. Our team members truly have the best handle on their own strengths and where they need help. Our goal is to maximize the amount of time that they are working from their strengths and help them work around their challenges.

Traditional reviews tend to assume that employees are supposed to spend a lot of time tackling their weaknesses. We want our team members to recognize their challenges, but also identify creative workarounds and complementary skill sets. Our goal is to have pople spend the majority of their time doing what they’re good at—and that may be different for each team member. Collectively, though, that translates into higher organizational performance and an increase in individual satisfaction. 

Less Numbers, More Substance


Finally, our review process has shifted away from using numeric scores to qualitative information. We’ve completely done away with the traditional “rank the employee’s performance on a scale of one to five” and replaced it with a series of questions designed to elicit meaningful, actionable input.

We found that when using the old model, everyone always received 3s and 4s but never 1s or 2s.There was an obsession with the grade rather than the content. But we want to know what resources team members  need to perform their jobs and what impediments need to be cleared away to help them continue to grow.

Ultimately, we believe the employee-led review is faster, honest, and more constructive. We’re living in a day and age when people with diverse backgrounds bring a range of skills to a marketplace that changes every year. Of course, some of these skills and experiences are why the employee was originally hired, but there are often latent competencies that the self-review process can draw out, thereby increasing the organization’s adaptability and the individual’s contribution and career growth.

Visit Alexandria’s Employee-Led Review Questions

  1. The achievements in FY 2017 of which I am most proud are:

  2. My special strengths that enabled me to contribute to those achievements are:

  3. I am grateful for these organizational resources that supported my work:

  4. Looking ahead to FY 2018, I would request these additional organizational resources to help me reach the next level (if applicable):

  5. I also need help clearing these impediments or frustrations (could be technical resources, office structure or routine, personnel matters, and so on). How might we resolve these issues?

  6. In the next year I want help managing around these weak areas or habits: 

  7. Last year, I identified these areas to manage around, and together we made progress in this way(s):

  8. For my further career development, I would like to:

  9. If I left Visit Alexandria tomorrow, here are the critical gaps that would need to be filled:

  10. Thinking about my strengths, here are some ways in which I feel underutilized and could add to the success of the organization:

  11. Setting aside my day-to-day tasks and thinking more broadly about the organizational goals they are helping to fulfill, here is an idea(s) to serve these organizational goals more effectively: 

  12. My personal measurable goals for next year are:

  13. Other comments not captured above (optional)
About the Author

Tom Kaiden is the chief operating officer of Visit Alexandria, responsible for strategy, research, partnerships, finance, and administration. Prior to joining Visit Alexandria, Tom led the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the marketing, research, and advocacy association for 300 regional cultural organizations, serving as president (2010-2013) and chief operating officer (2001-2010). Before joining the Cultural Alliance, Tom was the executive director of the Stowe (Vermont) Area Association, where he helped grow four-season revenue at the "Ski Capital of the East" to the point where summer and fall outpaced winter.

Tom holds an MBA from Cornell University and a BA in economics from the University of Connecticut. Tom is a contributor to ATD's Work the Problem: How Experts Tackle Workplace Challenges published in 2018. He and his wife, Sue, are parents to two grown children, Andy and Claire, and a cheerful Labrador retriever that refuses to swim or retrieve.

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