The Evaluation: Performance Reviews

Blog / Produced by The High Calling

When you think “performance review,” do you start grumbling to yourself? Do your palms start to sweat? Do you roll your eyes and mutter about “The Man?” Or do you stare into the mirror and smile, practicing your best superficial self-report?

If you hate performance reviews, you’re not alone. In fact, the dreaded Bureaucratic Performance Review was probably dead on arrival, Darcy Jacobsen speculates on Globoforce. In the Third Century, China’s Wei Dynasty established a civil service. An Imperial Rater judged potential civil servants using a Nine Grade System. Bad grades would immediately eliminate candidates from the running. However, this bureaucratic structure masked corruption instead of promoting justice. Philosopher Sin Yu complained: “The Imperial Rater seldom rates men according to their merits, but always according to his likes and dislikes.” Predictably, the rich and well connected were given unfair advantages.

Unfairly skewed performance reviews plague us to this day. Some argue that this problem found its zenith under GE’s Jack Welsh in the 1980s. He devised the notorious “Rank and Yank” system. (To his credit, Welsh didn’t choose the name. He actually hates it.) GM split employees into top 20, middle 70, and lowest 10 deviations, and, you guessed it, the bottom 10 percent were “yanked” from the company. In Forbes, Peter Cohan argues: “Rank and Yank [forced] managers … to be intellectually dishonest. To conform to Welch’s requirement, they had to label as bottom 10% outstanding people who did not spend enough time promoting themselves to the management committee.” Imperial Rater, meet Management Committee.

“Yank and Rank” aside, all sorts of performance review systems are riddled with problems. According to leadership advisory firm CEB, “two-thirds of employees who receive the highest scores in a typical performance management system are not actually the organization’s highest performers.” Mercer’s 2013 Global Performance Survey reports that “only 3% of organizations claim that their performance management system delivers exceptional value. 48% say their performance management approach needs work.”

But even if procedures were perfected, performance reviews might make us shudder anyway. When we feel our status threatened, our field of view literally constricts. We take in narrower streams of data. Creative energy plummets. We freeze like deer in our bosses’ headlights. This happens to people across the board, too; even workers with learning, goal-centered orientations squirm at constructive criticism offered during performance reviews. As Norman Vincent succinctly wrote in The Power of Positive Thinking: “We'd rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”

The system may be broken. It may be fixed. Our reaction is still the same: we hate the system.

A knee-jerk Christian reaction might be to ask: What does the Bible say about performance reviews? The answer isn’t as simple as we might hope, since the Bible was written before the Wei Dynasty even existed. However, the Bible gets to the heart of why we dislike performance reviews—and helps us approach them in a new way.

We ought to help each other improve. This is a pretty straightforward moral principal, but, when we take it seriously, it has an edge to it. As the well-known proverb goes: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Have you ever sharpened two knives by rubbing them together? In the spirit of the analogy, try replacing those knives with people. It sounds a bit painful, doesn’t it? Well, being “sharpened” by your boss can be painful. But performance reviews are probably uncomfortable for your boss, too. Many bosses fear that they’ll miscommunicate or hurt employees’ feelings. Yet if your boss is able to communicate in ways that actually “sharpen” your skills, then the review will sharpen her ability to manage, too. The iron-on-iron process will be mutually painful and mutually beneficial for both parties involved.

This may sound like a burden or a bummer. But, as Bonhoeffer exhorts in Life Together, “The Christian … must bear the burden of a brother. He must suffer and endure the brother. It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not merely an object to be manipulated.” If you have messy, complicated, and burdensome interactions with the people in the office, you’re probably in authentic relationships with them.

The controversy over “Rank and Yank” stems from its structural inability to treat employees like people who ought to be “suffered and endured.” Instead, it treats people like assets that should either be kept or “yanked” at the drop of a hat.

Although Welsh defends the humanity of Rank and Yank claiming, “with its candor and transparency, differentiation provides dignity, develops future leaders, and creates winning companies,” the Rank and Yank system relies on statistics. When it comes to assessing asset values, statistics are useful: a line graph adjusted here, a percentile raised over there. But when it comes to assessing flesh-and-blood employees, statistics are, at their best, reductive. At their worst, statistics are misleading.

If this is the case, how can we cultivate a healthy “iron-sharpens-iron” attitude? We may fear that bosses will say “I’m just sharpening you” in order to defend their harsh critiques. Employees may shrug off their bosses’ criticism by reasoning: “Well, she’s not trying to sharpen me. This isn’t hard for her. She just wants me out of the job!” Furthermore, when it comes to bureaucratically enforced performance reviews, both employees and bosses may feel subjected to a system that treats them like “objects to be manipulated” rather than individuals with preexisting, thoughtful, give-and-take working relationships.

These are reasonable fears. However, they all hinge on pointing out the faults in others: the boss points out the employee’s flaws; the employee, defensive, turns the boss into the villain; both blame “the system.”

The Bible implores us to do some crucial internal work before we get to this point. Consider this famous passage from The Sermon on the Mount: “How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.”

Before we assess and criticize other people, we need to meticulously assess our own workplace weaknesses. Even our smallest foibles, our “specks” need to loom large in our eyes—they need to look like logs to us!

Only then, when we’ve grown aware of our own faults, will we be able to humbly, gently, and non-hypocritically assess other people. Once we’ve regained our vision, we will be able to gently treat the specks that cloud their vision. We’ll use a tissue to gingerly treat their affected eyes—because we’ve been in their place. We’ve been blind too. And, honestly, we’re still probably blind in ways we’ve overlooked.

This principle applies to bosses as much as it applies to employees. If bosses are aware of their own workplace blemishes, they will be able to assess employees with empathy and wisdom. Unfortunately, all too often, we try to brazenly fix each others’ eyes while our own eyes are helplessly clouded. For this reason alone, performance reviews can be uncomfortable and difficult.

Mutual humility and willingness to change will allow bosses and employees to treat the specks in each other’s eyes. And this process will not only build up individual bosses and employees, but entire organizations, too. Paul emphasizes this “building up” in Ephesians 4: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”

The key lies in the often-misunderstood (at least by me!) word “edification.” I usually think something is edifying when it’s “morally upright” or “sanitized;” the word sounds conservative and stodgy. But the OED gives us a much more revealing description. Edification is: “The building up the church, of the soul, in faith and holiness; the imparting of moral and spiritual stability and strength by suitable instruction and exhortation.”

To edify is to build up. “Edification” describes a process of continual improvement by gracious instruction and exhortation. In other words: edifying performance reviews build up organizations by building up the church. The church is built up by honestly, graciously assessing individual performers.

Performance reviews are often mismanaged. Review systems are often buggy. But even when reviews are well designed, we bristle at the thought of constructive criticism. Yet if we grow attentive to our own weak spots, then we can give and receive criticism with humility and grace. Gracious feedback will edify employees and bosses, individuals and companies, iron and iron.

That sort of collaborative performance deserves high marks, without a doubt.


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 and infographic designed by daSantosh.