OKRs are a huge part of an organization’s performance management toolbox. It’s easy to want them to interact closely with other tools, namely performance reviews AKA appraisals. From there, it’s all too tempting to combine them in a software solution. But I’m very familiar with the negative consequences this brings, having worked at an employee performance management tool (Small Improvements) and now a business performance management tool (Perdoo). I’ll highlight the key issues of lumping employee evaluations and OKRs together, and outline what I’ve seen work instead.
Before we start, a quick note: Some companies try to use performance reviews to drive goal attainment. But performance reviews are really ineffective at doing this. Reviews always reflect on performance over a given period, so are always backward-looking. They can highlight areas to improve goal attainment in the future, but they’ll never help you achieve your current goals. Instead, try frequently checking in on your goals and sharing updates to boost alignment. Here’s proof this works.
The main 4 traps
Okay, let’s dive in. Many of these issues stem from performance reviews being about individual employees, whereas OKRs are about the business as a whole.
Unfair, inaccurate performance reviews
When employees consider the outcome of a performance review to be fair, they’re more likely to accept the result. So if you want effective performance reviews, they need to be fair. But what makes them fair? According to academics, you need to compare an employee’s performance with their own performance over a period of time, instead of other employees’ performance. Avoid things like bell curves and “comparative evaluations.”
The problem: OKRs are inherently collaborative. You set out what you need to accomplish to push you toward your ultimate goal, and then find the right people to collaborate and make that happen. Any evaluations based on the attainment of these collaborative OKRs will be comparative evaluations, so you’ll decrease the chance that the employee perceives the evaluation as fair.
What’s more, as they’re rarely a solo-endeavor, OKRs are a poor measure of individual performance. Intel’s Andy Grove (often called the “Father of OKR”) captures this perfectly: “[OKR] is not a legal document upon which to base a performance review, but should be just one input used to determine how well an individual is doing.”
Using OKRs to control, not innovate
Organizations that tie OKRs to employee evaluations start to use them as a command-and-control style of management. This might not be the intention, but this is inevitable when OKRs and performance reviews sit in one platform. An employee sees their OKRs alongside their performance reviews and starts to draw conclusions.
This kills engagement and productivity, but also stifles the learning, risk-taking, and creative cultures that your OKR program needs to succeed. Employees will also be prone to sandbagging (understating their ability to reach a goal) which reduces trust and social bonds that are crucial to team success. Meanwhile, you’re achieving a lot less with unambitious targets. If you’re tying compensation to performance reviews, this sandbagging effect is only made worse
A focus on outputs
OKRs should focus on outcomes, not outputs. But when you’re tying OKRs to appraisals, you’re likely to cascade them down to the individual employee level to make evaluations “easy”. Managing the huge multiplication of OKRs slows you down a lot, as Spotify noted. Indeed, even Rick Klau (the Googler from the famous Youtube video on OKR) now recommends avoiding employee-level OKRs.
Most importantly, when setting goals at the employee level, it makes more sense to focus on what people need to do to achieve the outcomes that are so important for your business. Employee-level OKRs then become very output-driven – which is not what OKRs are for. That’s why Perdoo allows you to track those outputs or tasks related to your OKRs separately, as Initiatives.
Taking people, rather than your organization, as the starting point
Successful companies work, hire, and approach all workforce planning by starting with their strategy, not their people. They ask themselves “do I have the right people to execute the strategy?” not “do I have the right strategy to help my current employees work?” In fact, you can even use your OKRs to define who to hire next.
Within teams, it’s right to play to particular strengths, which can influence the tactics you use. But that’s not a sustainable way to grow the business as a whole.
Embedding OKRs in performance reviews
Here’s what I’ve seen work for customers at Perdoo and Small Improvements: discuss OKR-related behaviors in performance review conversations. It’s best to make these behaviors role-specific, too. For example:
For managers and executives:
- Are they able to identify the right OKRs to focus on?
- Do they proactively help direct reports to achieve their goals on time?
For individual contributors:
- Are they willing, and able, to lead Objectives?
- Do they complete Initiatives on time?
Making OKR-related behaviors one of many inputs into your appraisal system is a great way to keep them front and center. But remember the other valuable areas to discuss in your performance reviews: career aspirations, functional expertise, development areas for role success, demonstration of values, ability to execute, etc.
There’s plenty of information in Perdoo to use as great input for your performance reviews. You can pull in notes from Check-ins or any ongoing feedback and recognition left in comments across your goals. Ultimately, decoupling OKRs and performance reviews gives you the best chance of growing both your people and your company.