There are certain times of the year that we’re delighted to be consultant-entrepreneurs.

The holidays, for one.  No, not because we miss the seasonal party [though we do get together with friends and clients].  Nor for the year-end bonuses and celebrations.

The reason we’re glad to be an LLC?  The much-loved, much-discussed (and yes, much-detested) performance review.

Today, companies claim they’ve solved the issues:  Employees demotivated, work disrupted, and difficult conversations either not implemented or executed poorly.  An all-too-infrequent focus on personal results and chemistry.  Little ongoing feedback.  Work relationships that, simply, don’t work.  And so on.

The solutions range from new software-in-the-cloud packages to performance review re-positioning.  For the former, software provider (among others) touts its social networking foundation, its combination of virtual and real rewards, and its ongoing tied-to-project employee goal-setting.  In re-positioning efforts, businesses of all shapes and sizes, in a variety of industries, completely do away with formal reviews (about 1 percent of those reporting, says the Corporate Executive Board) and/or institute year-round processes, i.e., not limited to specific months in the year.

Great ideas, one and all.  Yet what these and other solutions fail to consider is the relationship between manager and staff.  If there’s a lack of trust for the manager, for one, we know of few employees who will risk a job to tell the diplomatic truth.  Or if there are few chances for open communication, again, only a few will raise their hands and request time to talk.  Even anonymous peer-to-peer evaluations and 360° feedback can falter when candor is not appreciated. 

Driving high performance is, at its core, a contract between manager and employee; that’s the level at which work is accomplished.  It’s a form of communication, beginning way before onboarding, at the time of interviewing and, then, hiring.  When that trust and fundamental honesty are cemented, performance reviews become a matter of record, documents that exist to confirm that work is either being done well, not so well, not at all.  It’s the conversations that make the difference.

We know this is radical.  At the same time, communicators (and their allies, from HR to design) can have a major impact on driving performance, all in coaching for open dialogue.  How are we doing?