Why self-reflections are an important part of the performance review process
When it comes to the best way to do performance reviews, there’s no shortage of debates. One topic that has come up recently is the best way for employees to have a voice in their performance review process, if at all. There are diverse opinions on both how and why to do it. When referring to self-reflection, what we mean is giving employees a formal way to include their perspective in the performance review process.
In this article, we’ll review the arguments for and against self-reflection and give a research-backed recommendation on how to incorporate self-reflections.
Including an employee's voice is defined as “allowing individuals who are affected by decisions to present information that they consider relevant to the decision.” Many opponents to including an employee’s voice believe the following myths:
- Myth: Employees just want to explain away their bad performance. Actually, in a recent study, when splitting an appraisal conversation into two parts: performance evaluation and development planning, employees were more likely to participate in development planning. And only that participation in development planning was associated with the employee feeling like they had a voice in the process.
- Myth: Employees just want to change the outcome. Actually, employee participation can be split into two types: value-expressive (participating to have your say) or instrumental (participating to influence the outcome). Research has found that value-expressive is more closely correlated with being satisfied with the process and believing it was fair. So while employees want to have a say, they don’t expect it to influence the outcome.
The case for self-reflections
Proponents would say employees taking part in the process impacts procedural justice, meaning how they perceive the fairness of the performance evaluation process itself. These perceptions are important because employees are not robots, their experiences have a direct impact on how they perform. If they perceive the process as fair, they’ll be more likely to accept the outcomes of the process, be more satisfied with their work, be committed to the organization, and be motivated to improve, which is, of course, the ultimate goal of performance management.
The most progressive proponents might also mention that taking part in the performance review process can shift an employee’s perspective from a "check-the-box activity," or worse, "something that is done to me," to a ritual for their growth. This shift happens because of both the content as well as the context.
- Content-wise, the act of reflecting has been found to increase performance, as well as make employees happier and less likely to burn out.
- Context-wise, having a temporal landmark (like a set performance review discussion) creates the opportunity to contrast their past and future self. For example, “For the last six months, I did not create visible project plans for my team, in the next six months I’ll be the type of person that does this.” This contrast between different selves results in higher motivation and even a higher likelihood to take action.
Proponents would also emphasize the benefits for managers. In a job where employees produce tangible goods and are rated on the number of widgets produced, a self-reflection wouldn’t make much sense. However, in a world where the share of employees considered knowledge workers are ever-increasing, and with more of those employees working from home, much of the “work” that gets done in a day is not directly seen by someone’s manager or even their peers. In these cases, self-reflections can provide:
- A look at invisible labor: Self-reflection can show a view into the employee’s performance that is not otherwise seen and the employee’s perceptions of their development opportunities. A study found that employees who took part in a self-reflection were more likely to have deeper discussions about their performance and potential issues.
- A temperature check: Self-reflection can show a forecast into how the review conversation will go based on the discrepancy between what the manager thinks and the employee’s own opinion of their performance. This can give the manager time to prepare for difficult conversations.
The case against self-reflections
We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that opponents have a strong case as well, particularly when it comes to using self-ratings.
- Fact: Employee’s self-ratings will be inflated. Unsurprisingly, employees are more likely to be lenient when rating themselves.
- Fact: This inflation is not equal. Notably, women rate themselves lower than men that performed equally, and individualistic cultures are more likely to give themselves high ratings.
- Fact: Self-ratings can shift the manager’s review. Managers are more likely to give a positive review when the subordinate’s self-rating is favorable. Or worse, they may see the discrepancy in ratings and avoid the performance discussion altogether.
Taken together, this shows that self-ratings can exacerbate and systematize biases. Ultimately, it adversely affects distributive justice, or how equitable the outcomes (e.g., raises and promotions) of the process are.
How to do self-reflections right
So how can you keep all of the benefits, like improving procedural justice and having better manager-employee conversations, without the negative impact on distributive justice? It’s simple: self-reflections rather than self-ratings.
Provide employees the opportunity to give their perspective on (and explanations of) how they performed over the review period, but not in the form of self-rating. In Culture Amp’s self-reflection template, we recommend 4 questions:
- Delivery on goals: What progress have you made on your goals over [time frame]? Describe the impact on the success of your team, department, and organization.
- Blockers to goals: What blockers or challenges did you experience over [time frame] that made it harder to achieve your goals?
- Progress on L&D goals: What formal and informal ways have you developed over [time frame]?
- Setting new L&D goals: What are 2-3 skills you’d like to acquire, develop, or refine over the next [time frame until next cycle]?
If done well, this should ensure the employee’s participation is most focused on the development planning aspect. And hopefully, this shifts the manager’s perspective of the review from a combative discussion to a collaborative problem-solving session with their direct report. We also recommend training your managers not to change their rating based on an individual’s (potentially inflated) self-reflection.
Whether or not you choose to include a formal self-reflection in your review process, there are other ways you can give employees a voice:
- Allow employees to set performance standards for their role, whether through goal-setting or giving feedback on the competencies being assessed.
- Give employees guides on how they can take part in the performance review discussion. In one study, the opportunity to discuss past and future performance was the single greatest determinant of an individual’s perceptions of the performance appraisal process (higher than taking part in a formal self-rating process!)
Self-reflections, not self-ratings
While there are good points on both sides, giving your employees a voice in the performance review process will help them perceive the process as fairer, as well as take part in deeper developmental conversations with their manager. Just make sure to avoid the dreaded self-rating so you don’t inadvertently reinforce biases, or put managers in a difficult position of refuting the self-rating.