Performance Reviews, Santa and the Slack Factor

They slack off all year, avoiding chores like the plague, whining and complaining every time you ask them to do anything. Then, two weeks before the big guy comes to town, they’re suddenly enthusiastic and eager to please.

I’m not talking about kids sucking up for Santa. I’m talking about employees a few weeks before their performance review.

The question is:  Do you reward someone for sudden improvement just before review time?

Believe it or not, there are two good reasons why you might want to reward people who make a big show of hard work right before their review.

1.      They’ve proven that they know what good performance looks like

2.      You want to reinforce good behavior, not penalize them for it.

It’s natural to be annoyed. People should do the right thing all year long, not just make an 11th hour effort when they think someone’s watching.

But one of the main reasons we do performance reviews, or give feedback of any kind, is for improvement. A last minute razzle-dazzle might not qualify them for Employee of the Year, but it should at least be recognized. After all, isn’t this the kind behavior you want to see more of?

Human beings are pretty simple creatures. Praise them for something, and you increase the likelihood that they’ll keep doing it.  Ignoring their improvement, or getting angry because they didn’t do it earlier, decreases the likelihood that they’ll sustain it.

The “Slack Off Until You Think Someone’s Watching” phenomenon isn’t limited to the workplace. It’s the reason our spouse cares more about the house just before their parents visit and the cleaning service scrubs behind the toilet just before the holidays.

But be honest, doesn’t your driving improve when you pass a police car?

Aren’t you more likely to go on a diet before your class reunion?

We’re human.  We’re all a bit more motivated when we think someone else is watching.

That’s why Weight Watchers has weekly weigh-ins and companies do performance reviews.

The secret is to use that external pressure to bring out the best in people.

Feedback that emphasizes everything we’re doing wrong rarely inspires us to do better.

Contrary to the way many people conduct them, an effective review process isn’t about berating people for past failures; it’s about setting the stage for future success.

If they were a great performer all 52 weeks of the year, do the glory dance together and celebrate the fact that you have a fabulous employee.  But if they were mediocre most of the year, yet had a sudden burst of energy at the end, give them some credit for trying.

Say something like, “I love what you’ve done in the last two weeks. When you did X (specific example), I was so impressed. You’ve really upped your game, let’s talk about how we can keep it there.”

You don’t have to give them the top rating. Save that for the people who busted it all year long. But give them at least some reward for improvement.

And most importantly, paint a picture of what their future will look like if they perform that way all the time.

It would be great if people were self-motivated to do their best all year long.  But if someone shows remarkable improvement right before evaluation time, they’ve proven that they know what good looks like. Your job is to reward and reinforce it.

Lisa Earle McLeod helps organizations win the hearts and minds of customers and employees. She is the author of three books included the best-seller, The Triangle of Truth: The Surprisingly Simple Secret to Resolving Conflicts Large and Small, A Washington Post Top 5 Book for Leaders.

 She is an international keynote speaker and consultant who has been seen on The Today show and featured in Forbes, Fortune, CEO Read and The Wall Street Journal.  You can reach her at