Thursday, November 5, 2009

Performance Reviews: The Bad

At the High Calling Blogs Tuesday, my friend Bradley Moore (Shrinking the Camel) posted “How Important is Your Image?” The article is about the peer review process as part of an individual’s overall performance appraisal, and then goes deeper into a discussion about image and performance. Over the years, performance appraisal processes have become something of a major industry. And there are all kinds of facets to them – peer reviews, performance reviews, results reviews, L-180s (where team leaders are appraised anonymously by their team members), and L-360s (where an individual is appraised anonymously by supervisor, subordinate, peers, colleagues on other teams), among a lot of others.

While the article was mostly about whether or not image was more important than performance, and what kind of image that was, I keyed in on the performance review part. I hate performance reviews, and not because they aren’t (theoretically) valuable. The comment I posted on Bradley’s article went something like this:

I’ve had performance reviews for almost my entire career, except for the four years I was an independent consultant. I can recall a few that were okay in terms of how they were conducted, many that were totally inept, but very few that were good. When I started doing them myself for people on my team, I generally had no role models to emulate, and basic HR guidelines that rarely applied, except for what to avoid doing. So I looked to biblical principles — be fair, be honest, talk about the hard stuff, give credit where it was due, and always affirm the worth of the person.

I should have added that performance reviews should go on all the time and not just once or twice a year. The mantra I chant until I drive people crazy is “No surprises at mid-year and annual reviews. No surprises. Not one surprise, good or bad.” My theory here is, if a problem comes up, you deal with when it happens, not months later. If someone is a consistently poor performer, you’re doing no one any good by saying nothing or trying to transfer them elsewhere. Or if someone deserves recognition or celebration, you do it right then, when everyone understands and sees the connection. So, no surprises at review time.

If you think I speak from experience, you are entirely correct. Too much experience. Since college, I’ve had six employers, seven if I include myself. Before I graduated from college, I had three, so formally and informally, that makes a total of 10. And from those 10, I’ve collectively learned there are at least four kinds of bad performance reviews.

The Zinger. You’ve had a bang-up performance year, you’re firing on all eight cylinders, and choirs of managers have been singing your praises. Your boss knows it and appreciates it. But he can’t give you a 100 percent positive review, because he never had one like that, he doesn’t want to give you the big head, and he believes that no one does all good. So he comes up with – the zinger. This is a simple comment designed to throw the individual totally off balance, something that has never been spoken about, something so totally out of left field that you can’t respond as your boss smilingly adds it to “development needs.”

I had one boss who turned the zinger into an art form. All of us who reported to him experienced it, and we occasionally took bets on what he’d come up with for the current year. For me, it usually some variation of “You’re not aggressive enough.” The first time he hit me with it, I didn’t know what to say. It worked so well that first time that he tried it again the next year, but I was ready and asked, “And how did that affect my performance?” That flustered him. The third time he pitched it at me again, but he had an answer to my question: “It didn’t affect your performance, but it affects management’s perceptions of you.” So I started getting more aggressive – with him. When I said that’s what he had told me to do, he said, “I didn’t mean with me!” Third time was the charm. He went on to something else.

The Non-Performance Review. The non-performance review happens when your boss doesn’t like doing reviews, and will talk about absolutely anything other than your performance: sports, the weather, his kids, your kids, his car, the carpeting on the floor, the light fixtures, you-name-it. It’s not that there are problems he wants to avoid talking about, it’s just he hates – hates! – getting so personal and has learned that a performance review, done properly, makes him as vulnerable as it does you.

Over the years, I’ve had performance reviews that offered opportunities to discuss movies and Broadway plays, the latest non-fiction bestseller, problems with other people on the team (like peers), favorite cocktails, restaurants and pets, among other things. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get back to the subject at hand. And then the time would elapse, and the boss would breathe a huge sigh of relief.

For these, you have to pay close attention to what gets written down, because you won’t know what your appraisal is until you see it. (I refused to sign one of these once – an act deemed equivalent to starting the French Revolution.)

The Image Review. This type of performance review has less to do with your performance than it does with your boss’s perceptions of the perceptions of “management,” which he’s often responsible for. So the image review becomes a kind of tea-leaf-reading exercise, in which you try to discern which “perceptions of management” are actually your boss’s own personal perceptions and which belong to someone else. And who "management" actually is.

This one is tough on the person being reviewed. It helps to have some years of experience here, because you have to know how things work and you have to be fast on your feet in responding. I was once told, for example, that “management” had a problem with my team leadership capabilities because my people liked working for me, the expectations being, apparently, that you were a better team leader if they didn’t like you, so treat them badly. So I said, “Look at their performance and tell me how it could have been improved by browbeating them.” The response was a sullen look. I wish I was making this up.

The Hybrid Performance Review. This one usually combines the Image Review and the Zinger. Performance is barely mentioned; instead, you get a combination of “management’s perceptions” and a series of zingers. I may hold the record for this, in fact. In one one-hour review, performance was discussed in less than 15 seconds – a kind of grunt – and then it was a series of perception zingers, all of which were totally baseless and some of which were actually the perceptions about my boss, and we both knew it.

I would like to say I did the kind, understanding, Christian thing. I didn’t. I was so outraged that I fought back, and hard. I refuted everything. Met with a “but this is management’s perception” response, I hit back with “and you were responsible for almost all of that,” and then explained that in detail.

This wasn’t a performance review; it was a boxing match. No, that’s too nice. It was an ugly street brawl. Bridges got burned. It was just plain bad. Whenever you have one of these with your boss, you lose. By definition.

As I said in my comment to Bradley’s post, it all should down to this: Be fair. Be honest. Talk about the hard stuff when it happens, not during the review. Give credit where it’s due. Always affirm the worth of the person.

And no surprises.

Tomorrow: the good review performance reviews.


Maureen said...

You have captured PAs perfectly, Glynn. I've suffered the same kinds of reviews as you.

The zinger thrown at me, always, was, "Your standards are too high." The image "problem" was, "You expect too much." Gee, in the total absence of any standards or expectations from above, I was doing the only kind of job I knew how to do, which was the absolute best I could do. I was known for the quality of my work. I also spoke out. When you are female and speak out among so-called peers who are all male, you get a lot of withering glances, not to mention that all-purpose, "You are too aggressive." No door into the old boy's network that way.

When I was in management and had to do PAs, I tried my best to follow the guidelines you use. My efforts rarely were appreciated. We had lots of employees who routinely wrote long responses to everything in their PAs, even when the appraisals were full of praise. They also had their responses put in their personnel files. Bad move. Managers who looked in those files when the workers applied for a job stopped looking as soon as they saw those responses.

The day after I retired and knew I never had to do another PA or receive one was one of the best days of my life.

Maureen said...

P.S. In one company I worked for, I did not have a performance appraisal for 10 straight years, even though HR claimed that managers were "required" to write them. In the absence of accountability, I suffered the result, because without a PA, I got no raise.

L.L. Barkat said...

This is what I've always liked about being an entrepreneur. I have only myself to zing. :) (The sale of my services speak to the actual performance. Good performance, better sales. Bad performance... eat Ramen noodles. :)

Anonymous said...

Glynn - Working in a corporate environment, we are working very, very hard to achieve the "no surprises" state of business. We also have done a lousy job for the 10 years that I have been here, and we have made a concerted effort over the past year. It takes alot of coaching of supervisors- to the extent that they also need to learn to be coaches to their employees - giving productive feedback (good and bad) in the moment with an explanation.
Loved the post. We've all been there. Looking forward to the GOOD!