The Evaluation: Five Kinds of Supervisor Performance Reviews

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I have just walked out of my annual performance review. And this one is noteworthy. It’s my last one; this time next year, I’ll be retired. While I believe that supervisors and bosses are important and indispensable, I will not miss those annual evaluations.

After 35 years of both receiving and giving performance reviews in corporate America, I’ve learned that evaluators are as varied as general humanity, but they do tend to fall into one of roughly five categories.

1. “I see you here on the bell-curve.”

These supervisors will strictly follow performance review instructions that suggest that everybody fits somewhere along a spectrum of performance.

The instructions say that individuals’ performances will generally fall somewhere along the bell curve (so-called because it’s shaped like a bell on a chart). Most performers fall roughly in the middle, with a few on the “needs significant improvement” end and a few on the “superior performance” end. But rigidly fitting everyone on the team into a certain category, regardless of their performance, makes the supervisor find someone who “needs improvement,” another one or two people who are “meeting expectations,” two others that are designated “strong performers,” and maybe one ranked as a “superior performer.”

One year I led a team of four, each of who was widely acknowledged as outstanding performers. What they accomplished was nothing less than remarkable. Had I been forced to rate them by a rigid bell curve, and assign them to bell curve designations, I would have demoralized the team. Fortunately, we avoided that. But I've worked for some managers who applied the bell curve like a strait jacket—and they never understand why their teams wallow in mediocrity.

2. “What’s a performance review?”

These people either hate doing performance reviews or feel that reviews shackle their options, so they tend to avoid them.

I had a boss not long ago that was the stereotype for this category—I did not have one review in the four years I worked for him. He treated some of his people like children, but others like unwanted stepchildren. It was not good for anyone involved.

This is a problem category; lots of things depend upon performance reviews, like promotions, salary increases, and bonuses. Without a proper review, those decisions become completely subjective and actual performance counts for very little. It comes down to whether the boss likes you or not, or how much fuss you’re prepared to kick up.

3. “Yeah, you had a great year, but no one’s that perfect.”

These supervisors might appreciate outstanding work, but they are determined no one is going to look better than them. So they use the performance review to introduce a “zinger”—a problem, usually minor, that has never been previously mentioned.

I had one boss who was famous for it. My colleagues and I played a game of guessing what we would be zinged with each year. One year, a year that I had had a particularly good performance, my boss fell back on that clichéd standby, “You need to be more aggressive.” The next year it was “You’re too aggressive.”

4. “I like you; do you like me?”

These people love working with the people on their team. And they want the people on the team to like them back.

That can be a problem. In performance reviews, they are encouraging. They sing praises at review time. They tell people that with their leadership, great things lie ahead. And their enthusiasm makes everybody believe it.

And then one day the person who gets the promotion is the politician in the department instead of the star performer.

This may be the cruelest kind of reviewer and supervisor. Expectations are fed and then reality sets in. It’s ugly and becomes an open wound for resentment. I remember one time when the supervisor did exactly that—promoted the politician because some higher-up told him to. The effect was dramatic and immediate—the rest of the team, including me, walked.

5. “I strive to be utterly fair.”

These are the rarest of supervisors. They take great pains to do it right. Doing it right may make some people unhappy, but they do it right anyway.

And their people know that.

People can forgive a lot of mistakes when they know their supervisor is fair, when they know they won’t be zinged at review time, when they see him or her work hard to promote and reward great performance.

In more than 35 years of working for corporate America, I’ve had 22 supervisors. Two of them fell into the utterly fair category. Two.

They were joys for me to work for and yet I worked for each of them for a total of nine months. They knew how to do performance evaluations and they did them right. They didn’t flinch when they came to my “improvement areas.” And I actually appreciated that.

These categories are generalizations. Of course. Few people fit neatly into any one category.

I know how I would categorize myself in the reviews I’ve given. In what category are you?


The Evaluation

Each year, workers everywhere receive an evaluation of their job performance from their employer and, while most evaluations in the workplace don't go quite the way they appear on some television shows, those annual evaluations are often the source of everything from disappointment and stress, to surprise and a boost of confidence. How do we approach and receive evaluations as Christian workers? What can we learn from Jesus about giving and receiving words of instruction, correction, and affirmation? How can entrepreneurs and the self-employed remain accountable for doing good work and for keeping an eye on weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the workplace? Our series, The Evaluation, takes a closer look.

Featured image by Maria Ly. Used with Permission. Source via Flickr.