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Can we talk? A real conversation about employee performance

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Performance reviews can strike fear in the hearts of otherwise level-headed employees. Fraught with subjectivity and judgment, reviews too often put people in the hot seat and focus on negativity — here’s a goal you missed, here’s what you’ve been doing wrong, etc.

Most human resources departments would certainly deny that this is their intention, but performance reviews are one of those deeply entrenched activities that carry on the way they’ve always been done and seem impervious to change. Overhauling the whole system sounds exhausting, so inertia takes root. Every year, you go through the same dreaded process again because “oh, hey, it’s January.”

It doesn’t have to be this way.

You really can support employee development and drive toward business goals simultaneously. In fact, the two go hand in hand — as people grow and develop, so does your business.

The Udemy Conversation

At Udemy, we knew we wanted a better approach to performance management. Transparency is among our company values, so it made sense for us to introduce a program that would open the lines of communication between a manager and direct report and keep them open. Rather than make performance reviews a one-way, once-a-year Big Deal, we’ve opted for an ongoing dialogue (we call it the Udemy Conversation) so we can make on-the-fly adjustments. With the speed of our business, we can’t wait until traditional performance review season to make critical course corrections that will yield our desired business results.

It’s impossible to establish a real connection during a once-a-year review period. It has to be an organic part of how we work together every day, in an environment where it’s safe to speak up, take risks, and innovate. We don’t want our employees to hesitate because something doesn’t conform to strict job descriptions or performance goals.

Looking Forward with Optimism

Performance management at Udemy isn’t about studying the past; it’s about building a better future. We don’t look at what people “did wrong.” We focus on what we’ve learned and how we can apply those lessons going forward so we’re more successful as individuals and as a company. And we want to move into that future together with confidence and motivation, feelings you don’t get when you’re put under the microscope and marked with a grade or number.

It was big news when Microsoft abandoned so-called forced rankings in 2013 andmore companies are ditching performance ratings, but there are still plenty out there doing the “rank and yank” thing. That’s just not who Udemy is. We benefit more from helping our employees soar with their strengths than from focusing on their shortcomings. Our position is that it’s really the fault of the manager if someone is in a role that doesn’t leverage their best skills and abilities.

Not Everyone Gets a Trophy

To be sure, we still have high standards for our employees and take action if someone isn’t delivering. Netflix has famously described its culture as being that of “a team, not a family,” and we sometimes have to change up our roster in order to keep winning too.

But, to milk the sports metaphor further, our competitive season is year-round; our vision is to grow Udemy over the course of many years into a company with thousands of employees. And that requires more nuanced decision making around who gets benched. Instead of seeing goals in black and white, where people either fulfill goals or don’t, we place outcomes on a continuum without any implied judgment.

It’s Okay to Aim High and Miss

Another important component of performance management is goal-setting. How can you assess someone’s progress if you haven’t crisply defined what they’re working toward? And yet this task can generate fear among employees too.

As with most young startups, life at Udemy moves fast. Really fast. What feels like the right goal today might be totally off-base a couple of weeks from now. Employees want to set goals that show managers they’re striving for excellence, but they don’t want to overpromise something that’s likely to change and move out of reach. And we the employer don’t want to penalize hard-workers who set their sights high; they’re exactly the type of folks we want more of!

By making goals and achievements part of our regular, ongoing conversation, there’s a lot less pressure to show up at an annual review with every goal marked as “completed,” regardless of the five zillion other things that came into play over the last 12 months. It’s great to hit a target, but lots of good things can still happen when we don’t. Open communication helps everyone understand how and why we got where we are.

Keeping it Real

Last, and most important, the conversation approach is perfectly in line with our mission as a company — to support people around the world as they work to enhance their skill sets and advance in their careers. Udemy students tell us over and over that having access to our courses gives them confidence and drive to keep putting in the effort and pursuing their goals. We want our employees to feel the same way about the opportunities extended to them.

At Udemy, performance management isn’t a trial to be endured. It’s a conversation worth having.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.

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