Performance Reviews: The Bad

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A couple weeks ago, J.B. Wood posted about the peer review and performance appraisal process, with a discussion about image and performance. Performance appraisal processes are something of a major industry – peer reviews, performance reviews, results reviews, L-180s (team leaders are appraised anonymously by their team members), and L-360s (an individual is appraised anonymously by supervisor, subordinate, peers, colleagues on other teams), and others.

I hate performance reviews, and not because they aren’t (theoretically) valuable. I’ve had them for my entire career, except when I was an independent consultant. Some were okay, many were totally inept, and a very few were done well. When I started reviewing people, I had no role models to emulate, and basic HR guidelines weren’t much help. So I looked to biblical principles — be fair, be honest, talk about the hard stuff, give credit where it’s due, and always affirm the person’s worth. Performance reviews should happen all the time, not just once or twice a year. The mantra I chant is "No surprises with reviews. No surprises, good or bad. Not one." You deal with problems when they come up, 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 in reviews. I speak from experience. Too much experience. From college onward, I’ve had 10 employers, including myself, and about 25 bosses. I’ve 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 are singing your praises. Your boss knows and appreciates it. But he can’t give you a 100 percent positive review, because he never had one 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 off balance, something that’s never been spoken about, something so totally out of left field that you’re dumbfounded 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 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 he tried it again the next year, but I was ready and asked, "How did that affect my performance?" That flustered him. The third time he pitched it 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!" After that, he went on to something else.

The Non-Performance Review.
Your boss doesn’t like doing reviews, and talks about absolutely anything other than your performance: sports, the weather, his kids, your kids, his car, the carpeting, the light fixtures, you-name-it. It’s not that there are problems he wants to avoid; it’s just he hates getting so personal and knows a performance review, done properly, makes him as vulnerable as it does you.

I’ve had bosses discuss movies and Broadway plays, the latest non-fiction bestseller, problems with other people on the team (peers), favorite cocktails, restaurants and pets. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get back to the subject at hand. Then the time elapses, and the boss breathes a huge sigh of relief. With 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 review is less about your performance than it does with your boss’s perceptions of "management’s" perceptions. So it becomes a kind of tea-leaf-reading exercise, in which you try to discern which "perceptions of management" are actually your boss’s own perceptions and which belong to someone else. And who "management" actually is. This one is tough on the person being reviewed. Experience helps 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 leadership capabilities because my people liked working for me. Apparently, you were a better team leader if your people 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: a sullen look. I wish I was making this up. The Hybrid Performance Review. This 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 one one-hour review, performance was discussed in less than 15 seconds – a kind of grunt – followed by a series of perception zingers, all of which were totally baseless and some of which were actually the perceptions about my boss. We both knew it. I’d 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 went into 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. Whenever you have one of these with your boss, you lose. Coming Next: Performance Reviews: The Good. Post written by Glynn Young, author of the Blog Faith, Fiction, Friends. P