The distraction inside the annual performance review

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Tis the season to be writing.

Annual performance reviews are upon us. It’s a topic that most employees I know loathe. They might even rank it up there with public speaking for most feared and disliked events in life. So last year I tried to give some practical advice on getting value from the annual review process. Most employees only have to write their own self-review whereas managers write multiple. But even so, many of the employees choose not to document information in a self-review. They supply the minimum amount of information necessary to check-off their requirement and wait for their manager’s assessment.

I told a group of co-workers this year that your self-review is a chance to be who you want to be. It was a fun play on words. I wasn’t saying to make up accomplishments, but rather that this was their opportunity to self-assess for their own personal growth as well as to highlight accomplishments that they felt were most significant. Paint your portrait.

Managers, are not immune to disliking the process either. Throughout my professional career, I’ve listened to managers complain about various elements of the process. The results are often reviews without much content or waiting until the last minute and rushing through the form. Unfortunately the employee is the one penalized if this happens because they deserve to have an honest assessment of their performance.

I’m certainly not perfect when it comes to performance reviews. I do value the intention of the process.  I do spend quite a bit of time working on them. But I also have weekly one-on-one meetings with my reporting staff. So communication is constant throughout the year. There is one thing that bugs me though…..

The distraction.

The ratings are a distraction to the review process. I know they are necessary and well intended because they provide a measurable result of achievement. But they typically take away from the meat of the review which is the qualitative feedback on an employee’s performance during the year.Performance-Review-Questions

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Through the years I’ve see multiple types of rating scales from the HR form. The consistent thing is that employee expectations and the definition of the HR scale don’t agree which is what creates the distraction. Employees think of the scale as if they were in school. The highest rating is equivalent to an A. The rating associated with “you did your job as expected” is thought of as a C.  The creators of the scale and HR have the mindset that if you tell an employee they have done their job fully that it’s a good thing. So most employees should have this rating. The psychology of “meets expectations” vs “exceeds expectations” could be it’s own blog topic.  But it’s not the upper end of the scale I want to explore.

What about “partially meets expectations”?

When the rating is for an objective that is associated to a project that didn’t complete or a metric that was was not achieved, is it OK to give a rating of “partially meets expectations”? Or would that offend the employee and send a message that they don’t work hard enough? For much of my career, I would list all the reasons why the project wasn’t completed. On some occasions, I would even ask that a goal be removed if the business made intentional decisions during the course of the year to allocate labor to other projects.  I think these are good steps as a way to document and discuss.

In more recent years, I’ve been prone to rate myself as “partially meets expectations” when I don’t deliver goals that were written and agreed to. I’ve reached a point in my career where I’m comfortable raising my hand and saying that I didn’t accomplish the goal that we set to out to complete at the beginning of the year. But not everyone can do that. Not everyone is happy with a rating like that either. People react negatively to such a rating. They attribute it to failure and that they didn’t care.

But goals should be challenging to meet right?

If we achieve or exceed all our goals each year then have we set the measuring bar too low? If we don’t fail on some projects then are we learning as much as we should? Do we learn more from failures than success?

In my mind, having a couple of “partially meets” ratings is not necessarily a negative thing. It signifies we created a stretch goal. It signifies we may have failed and learned. It signifies we may have made decisions to allocate our time different than what we originally expected to do. Or it could be as simple as we bit off more than we could chew. Whatever the case, let’s have the emotional maturity to admit it and discuss it. Then it’s time to learn, re-rack, and start again in the new year.

Feeling inadequate

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When I assess my own performance at work, I always feel like I could have done better. I feel like I could have done more. It’s not that I’m not giving 100%. But it’s more a feeling in the day-to-day and week-to-week grind of the job. It’s that feeling that I’m not strategic enough when I need to be. I’m not focused enough on the little things. I wonder, if this is my best output and where could I be doing more.

Is this healthy? I think so. Here’s why.

Feeling inadequate helps me maintain a sense of urgency.

I don’t always act with a sense of urgency. It’s hard to maintain the drive of 100% all the time. But self assessments that seek new ways and better ways to do things help me keep a sense of urgency to continue to grow. Feeling inadequate to grow is a bit of reverse psychology. But I believe it’s a way to keep pride from letting myself get lazy.

Self assessment is healthy and results new ideas and actions.

Do the drill and self assess. As much as people hate the annual performance review at work, it does give all us an opportunity to self assess our performance. For me, it will inevitably lead to new ideas for how to improve my actions. I’ve used performance reviews to help set goals for the upcoming year and to identify personal disciplines that I need to develop.

A professional career is a journey filled with both success and failure.

I don’t like failure just like everyone else. But I don’t mind failure if leads me to examine new ideas. When I self examine, if I know I’ve failed at something then I may resolve to try the task again in a different manner or think about an alternate way to solve the problem. Software projects are good examples of this. I’ve been part of a team that has delivered software on-time and on-budget as well as as teams that have not delivered. The course of action is to examine what failed then get back to work. Take the time to assess.

If I’m ever satisfied, then I’m not accomplishing enough.

If I feel like I’ve arrived or mastered or all there is to know then I stop learning and growing. That’s not a good place to be. Looking back I can see this happening to me with project management skills after I completed a set of training classes. I know my skills as a project manager ceased to grow at that point. But there is always room for improvement. There is always something new to learn. I’m not one to sit and watch. I like to take action.


Getting value from the annual review

It’s time to write annual reviews.
It’s that time of year again when workers everywhere write reviews of their work performance during the previous year. Most people I know don’t like the process. The reasons vary, but include the following:

  • The results of the review process don’t yield anything tangible such as raises or promotions. Early in my career the annual review rating was used in a calculation for merit increases. With my previous two companies this was no longer true as wage increases were frozen.
  • The review scale is misunderstood. Workers tend to equate the rating scale with school grades. Employers use the middle rating as “meets expectations” and “fulfilling the requirements of the job”. Workers see the mid rating as a C grade. I’ve explained this to workers numerous times but there is a negative psychological effect for many people when they receive a 3 rating on a scale of 1-5.
  • The review rating is subjective in many ways. I remember one review where my manager told me that I was a “cowboy” because I liked to push the organization into places where it was not operating (negative rating). My next manager told me that this same characteristic was a good thing because the organization needed change and I was thinking outside the box.
  • The review process requires thinking and writing. That’s hard work! It requires taking time to think about what was accomplished the previous year. It also requires writing and some workers are not accustomed to sitting and writing.

Think about it differently.
What if we used the annual review as a time to document our accomplishments for both the review form and our resume? Many professionals today keep their resume online in places like LinkedIn. Over the last several years, I ‘ve used the data that I gathered for my self-review to also update my professional profile on LinkedIn. As I see it, if I am going to keep an online professional profile that is publicly visible then it needs to stay current. Otherwise, what message does that send about me?

So what does that process look like? As I write the self-review I make a bullet list of accomplishments and then work those into the summary of my current job area on LinkedIn. I like to prefix each entry with the calendar year of the accomplishment. This technique accomplishes three things:

  1. Shows recency for anyone reading my profile.
  2. Creates a timeline on the profile which shows the progression of work responsibility and job assignments in my career.
  3. Documents my most significant accomplishments when they are at top-of-mind. If I’m updating a resume ten years after a job assignment I’m likely to miss key accomplishments.

Making Lemonade.
lemonadeI’ll be honest, unlike many people, I like the annual review process. What I enjoy is that it helps to create a conversation between manager and employee. As a manager, I also hold weekly one-on-one meetings with each employee. So the content of the review should not be a surprise. But the weekly one-on-ones are often filled with discussions about progress on tactical tasks more than a review of performance.

I don’t enjoy the ratings system. I think the ratings scale is a distraction to the conversation and content of the review. To me, the review scale represents the lemons in equation. The conversation with the employee is the lemonade.

As I think about it, lemonade is a great idea. I think I’ll serve myself a glass as I sit down to write reviews.