Effective reviews: the role of the manager

By Kristof Stouthuysen, professor in accounting and management control at Vlerick Business School and KU Leuven

Review systems have the potential to make organisations and businesses more successful. For example, information regarding an employee’s performance can be used to set new objectives, offer courses and training sessions tailored to the individual, develop new selection procedures or job profiles, reach decisions regarding promotions and bonuses and, if necessary, build up a file of events that results in dismissal.

However in practice, it seems that not all organisations and businesses understand the relevance of the review system. Ignace Van Doorselaere (De Tijd, 28 July) suggests that Van de Velde soon intends to abolish formal reviews for all staff. Van Doorselaere says that technocracy and bureaucracy are the great enemies of passion. De Standaard (De Standaard, 23 September) reaches the same conclusion on the basis of a study carried out by SD Worx. A survey of 2,500 HR consultants reveals that Belgian employees feel more controlled and less motivated. The same study also reports that Belgian employees are least satisfied with the (method of) feedback from their managers. And this is precisely why review systems often miss the point.

An important aspect of a review system is the appraisal, where the employee receives feedback on his performance. Classical scientific theories suggest that employees will respond more positively to positive feedback. This means that employees are motivated, or keen to further improve their performance, if they receive positive scores for previously identified performance and conduct criteria or, at the very least, if the scores exceed their own expectations. However the theory has the practical disadvantage that if employees receive negative feedback, or if this feedback is not in line with their expectations, they will not respond positively and will not be motivated to improve their performance. Moving on from the nature of the feedback (positive vs. negative), scientists then shifted the research to other factors which have a beneficial effect on employees’ reaction to reviews.

According to recent scientific research, the quality of the manager-employee (ME) relationship prior to the appraisal plays a key part in how the appraisal goes, and the employee’s subsequent reaction to it. In particular, the role of the manager is crucial. After all, good quality ME relations are based on managers who regularly inspire and challenge their staff with interesting issues, allow them enough autonomy, encourage clear and open communication, and aim to build mutual trust, and who last but not least have a sense of humour.

Where appraisals are subsequently conducted in a context of good quality ME relationships, employees are far quicker to feel appreciated and feel that managers are actively listening to them. That sense of engagement is important because this in itself is the feeling that leads to a sense of justice. Justice whereby the employee has greater confidence in the review process, its objectivity and its outcomes. Even if negative feedback is given, employees will consider the appraisal to be valuable and will be motivated to make changes where necessary, all to the benefit of the organisation or company.

I started as a (young) professor at Vlerick Business School a few years ago. The review system, which among other things recorded lesson scores, and the annual appraisal, put me off initially. A regular meeting with the necessary depth, humour and face-to-face feedback from my mentor helped me to see the lesson scores objectively, to consider my performance, and to ultimately become a better teacher. The lesson is clear: if managers act as more of a mentor or coach, the review system/appraisals (re)gain their purpose.

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