More on A Powerful Alternative to Performance Reviews

This week’s podcast introduces what I call Appreciative Performance Reflections as a powerful alternative to traditional, check-off-the-goals, performance reviews. Over the previous weeks, I discussed some of the problems with the annual, checklist performance review, and explored some of the reasons that made it a logical-for-the-times approach in the 20th century, but wrong for today. Because I advocate strongly for adopting Appreciative Management practices as a means to bring organizational culture and practices into the 21st century, I want to provide a bit more information on the whys and wherefores of this powerful technique.

The Appreciative Performance Reflection conversation derives from the Appreciative Inquiry methodology developed by David Cooperrider, from which the Discover, Dream, Design, Destiny structure is taken. It is a way of enabling a positive-focused review of one’s accomplishments in the larger context of long-term aspirations and ambitions. More than that, Appreciative Performance Reflection enables one to contextualize those accomplishments in the service of organizational and colleagues’ objectives. Using a reference group rather than simply reviewing accomplishments with one’s direct supervisor alone enables better collaboration and activity coordination among individuals, especially those working in diverse functional areas. Additionally, this process encourages more innovation and greater initiative than traditional goal setting exercises. Traditional goal-setting often provides an incentive for uninspired objectives—people quickly learn that greater rewards accrue from setting non-challenging goals.

Most people are used to traditional forms of performance review that focus on judgmental assessment and evaluation, often with the instrumental objective of tying rewards to accomplishment. According to the results of considerable research, this turns out to have a contrary effect, as counter-intuitive as it may seem: the more that compensation is tied to greater performance, the worse people tend to perform. (For a fun exposition of this phenomenon, see Dan Pink’s book, Drive, and the YouTube video excerpted from his talk.)

Of equal importance, perhaps, the Appreciative Performance Reflection process is, at first, a relatively small intervention that can begin to effect large, systemic culture change in a complex organizational environment (according to the principles of complexity theory). It can begin with a limited pilot group within an organization, even in parallel with existing, more traditional Performance Review procedures. If successful, word of mouth will quickly carry it to other departments, resulting in more engaged, more committed, and more motivated employees at almost no incremental cost.

The Appreciative Performance Reflection is ideally held with a reference group of three people chosen by each individual, which often includes the individual’s direct supervisor or manager along with two other members with whom the individual tends to interact the most. The reference group helps facilitate, and actively participates in, the conversation around the individual aligning their aspirations and bringing their strengths to the organization’s collective success. The participation of the reference group helps to create mutual accountability and collective responsibility. It enables organic, emergent alignment of everyone’s efforts towards common success. Ideally, the reference group process obviates the traditional necessity of a hierarchical command chain to align people’s activities so that the organization accomplishes its goals. The thinking behind this acknowledges that autonomous individuals are capable of self-organization towards common goals in a context of common understanding. In adopting the process of Appreciative Performance Reflection, an organization’s leadership facilitates individual autonomy and agency, collective responsibility, and mutual accountability throughout the enterprise.


1.      Choose a Reference Group

A Reference Group is the small committee that facilitates the deep reflection on the individual’s performance. In most cases, the reference group comprises three people, one of whom is usually the individual’s direct supervisor or manager. The other two choices, selected by the person her/himself, should be made mindfully taking into consideration those with whom the individual has the greatest degree of interaction, or who might provide the most useful insights or most productive development guidance.

2.      Prepare One’s Own Reflections

Each person should prepare answers to the reflective guidance questions in writing. Since the intention is for this exercise to be a deep reflection, this aspect might require setting aside several hours. The questions are grouped according to the “4-D framework” of Appreciative Inquiry: Discover, Dream, Design, and Destiny. They include* reflections on:

  • Discover: Of which among your accomplishments since the last reflection check-in are you the most proud? What is important to you and the organization about these accomplishments?
  • Dream: Imagine you are in your ideal job. Specifically what are you doing? What have you done to achieve that role?
  • Design: Which of your “Dream” ideas inspire you to take specific, positive action to accomplish? What initial steps can you take immediately (or in the short term) to begin this process?
  • Destiny: What resources will you need and when to effect these ambitions? How will your Signature Strengths show up along this trajectory? How will you know if you’re on course and if you’re going off-course?

*Of course, there are a number of additional questions and considerations in the complete process.

3.      The Reference Group Conversation

The prepared document, shared with the reference group in advance, forms the basis of the Appreciative Performance Reflection conversation. This is intended to be a “coaching conversation” with the reference group that will delve deeper into the prepared answers and help facilitate both wider realizations with respect to the Discovery and Dream sections, and alternative possibilities with respect to the Design and Destiny sections. New insights as they arise through the conversation should be recorded and added to the prepared document.


The premise of Appreciative Performance Reflections is that people become more motivated when the work they do has meaning and is positively acknowledged. The organization benefits tremendously since collaborative knowledge networks build Scalable Capability, and this process directly links the individual assessment process to a collaborative framework and focuses on individual accomplishments in a larger, collaborative context. Appreciative Performance Reflections naturally connect to strategic and tactical planning, and enable (read: encourage) people to respond to innovative opportunities that present themselves over time rather than adhering to a priori lists of goals that may or may not be relevant six to twelve months after they were set. And, best of all, administering Appreciative Performance Reflections costs less than managing the traditional Performance Review infrastructure.

I should note that Appreciative Performance Reviews work best when they are incorporated into an overall framework of Appreciative organizational routines – this involves a mindset shift as much as procedural change. And when mindsets shift and procedures do change accordingly, the results in terms of employee engagement, productivity, intrinsic motivation, and innovation are nothing short of amazing!

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