Why Employees Fail to Change

 -  11/5/13

Talent managers can increase the effectiveness of annual assessments by providing employees with the skills to put performance feedback into action.

Do you ever have deja vu moments at work? One of the most common is the performance review — negative performance feedback that surfaces year after year. Detailed performance feedback is important, yet insufficient to change behavior. If talent managers apply the science behind behavior change to their review processes, they can help employees put their performance feedback into action and reverse this trend.

The November 2012 study “Avoiding a Deja Vu Performance Review” from VitalSmarts, a training and leadership development company for which the author works, surveyed 642 individuals and found 43 percent of employees experienced a deja vu performance review last year (Figure 1). Data revealed that many leaders found themselves talking about an issue in much the same way as was done in previous reviews. Leaders often feel stuck when they tell a direct report to improve, then the next review comes around and the person hasn’t improved.

Employees likewise feel stuck. Nearly 2 out of 3 employees in the study said they’ve received negative feedback, and yet only 1 out of 3 has ever made a dramatic change based on this feedback. Of those who failed to change their behavior, 10 percent said despite their efforts, they didn’t see any real change (Figure 2). When one survey respondent’s boss brought up the issue anew, the respondent described the review as a “painful reminder of the blindingly obvious.”

Direct reports who receive the same admonition to improve their performance year in and year out may feel embarrassed and annoyed because they haven’t changed and their boss keeps pointing out their long-lived foibles.

One reason performance reviews are largely ineffective is employees lack the ability to put performance feedback in action. Eighty-seven percent of respondents said they left their review without a plan for how to better meet their managers’ expectations, and half said it’s up to them to find a way to change.

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