Accentuate the Positive: Strengths-Based Approach to Performance Reviews
Hcareers / NOVEMBER 23 2007

The review process gives managers a rare opportunity to offer employees a comprehensive analysis of their on-the-job performance. In theory, most review systems are designed to provide a balanced assessment of employees’ strengths and weaknesses. In practice, though, far too many performance reviews end up focusing almost exclusively on the areas employees need to improve.

That’s not to suggest that constructive criticism shouldn’t be part of the review process. To the contrary, if you failed to use the performance review to correct deficiencies and errors, you’d be doing a grave disservice to both the organization and the employee. However, there’s a growing consensus among leading performance assessment experts that errors can be corrected effectively within the framework of a review format that focuses primarily on strengths, rather than weaknesses.

What is Strengths-Based Performance Evaluation?

Strengths-based employee reviews undertake the entire assessment process from a positive perspective, deliberately framing the review process in terms of what the employee did right over the course of the review period. Using this method, even the not-so-strong areas of an employee’s performance are reframed in the context of his or her positive strengths. 

Some of the strongest advocates of this approach are researchers who study positive psychology, which focuses on the beneficial, functional, and effective aspects of human motivation and behavior both in and out of the workplace.

What Can a Strengths-Based Performance Review Program Do for Your Organization?

One of the central tenets of positive psychology is that positive reinforcement — that is, praising and rewarding good behavior — is guaranteed to have a more lasting impact than is the practice of negative reinforcement, or punishing substandard performance.

Over time, the positive behaviors that you have singled out for praise will tend to multiply, gradually “crowding out” the negative behaviors you want to see less of. Slowly but surely, this “culture of praise” will help bring about the tipping point that is necessary for deeply-rooted organizational improvement.

So how can you begin to shift your employee performance review process toward a strengths-based model? Use these guidelines to begin to plan and implement a more positive approach to employee assessment.

  • Every Day is a Chance to Improve Performance.

    According to Robert Bacal, employee assessment expert and author of The Manager’s Guide to Performance Reviews, managers shouldn’t fall into the habit of waiting until the annual review to discuss problems. Instead, try to address minor weaknesses and shortcomings as soon as they occur, using a straightforward, matter-of-fact, solution-oriented approach. If an employee has ongoing behavior or performance problems, they should first be dealt with through the organization’s discipline system. By dealing with these issues on a day-to-day basis, you can avoid piling on with the negative criticism during the review process.

  • Look at the Big Picture.

    Sometimes, an employee’s mistakes and failures tend to stand out more clearly in managers’ minds than do their achievements and successes. Even employees who have a laundry list of shortcomings probably do more things right than wrong. Try to keep your staff’s quirks and foibles in proper perspective.

  • List More Strengths Than Weaknesses.

    It’s now common practice for managers to enumerate three or four big-picture strengths and weaknesses at the end of a performance review. Next time, try naming more strengths than weaknesses. This will help convey that the employee’s contributions are truly important and appreciated.

  • Help Employees Devise a Plan to Solve Their Problems.

    If there are significant weaknesses that need to be discussed in the review process, try to address them in the context of the employee’s strengths. For example, if an employee who is known for his ability to juggle ten dinner orders without writing them down consistently forgets to clock in and out, ask him to put that razor-sharp memory to work devising a system to help him remember to swing by the time clock every time he walks in the door. In this way, you’ll help the employee leverage their strengths to overcome their weaknesses. This is a process that encapsulates the deepest aims of the strengths-based assessment philosophy.