Sunday, May 6, 2012

On Performance Reviews (from employee standpoint)

Many people hate annual performance reviews for a number of valid reasons. At a recent conference, I sat next to an engineering manager with 14 direct reports who told me: “If my employees ever need a performance review, it means that I am a poor manager.” His point was that if he does not provide ongoing feedback and needs once-a-year campaign for this, then he is not a good manager. There is even a book by Samuel Culbert “Get Rid of the Performance Review!: How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing – and Focus on What Really Matters.”

S. Culbert identifies 12 problems with performance reviews:
1.           Performance reviews focus on finding faults and placing blame.
2.           Performance reviews focus on deviations from some ideal as weaknesses.
3.           Performance reviews are about comparing employees.
4.           Performance reviews create a competition between boss and subordinate.
5.           Performance reviews are one-side-accountable and boss-dominated monologues.
6.           Performance reviews are thunderbolt from on high, with the boss speaking for the company.
7.           Performance reviews mean that if the subordinate screws up, then the subordinate suffers.
8.           Performance reviews allow the big boss to go on autopilot.
9.           The performance review is a scheduled event.
10.         Performance reviews give HR people too much power.
11.         Performance reviews don’t lead to anything of substance.
12.         Performance reviews are hated, and managers and subordinates avoid doing them until they have to.

There is even a web site: As it is stated there, “We hate performance reviews. We don't hate the idea behind them, we hate how most big corporations implement them. It's inefficient. It doesn't work. “ Guess what they tell you next? “We're here to change that. We make performance reviews work for you.” What is your take away? Mine is: “It is not performance review concept that is bad. It is poor implementations that make it inefficient and sometimes even harmful.” This reminds me of Agile. I believe in Agile because I know it works. When I am told that Agile is no good, I know I am dealing with a poor implementation of this framework.

So – I know this too well myself. At my previous job, I hated performance reviews. They were totally inefficient. Throughout a year, my manager was carefully maintaining a list of my successes and failures and took pride in making my performance reviews highly detailed. I was well aware of my failures and successes myself, so this did not add any value except for the ratings that I got. For me, these ratings are an HR tool, I do not need them, I have my own scale of measuring my successes and failures based on the effort/courage/risk that I took, and no one knows that better than I. If the ratings were used for salary increases, then having them would make some sense. Interestingly though, the year that I got an average of “outstanding”, I got 0 salary increase because by that time my salary was at the limit of my position range anyway. I did not get a title increase either, so I wondered why my time was even wasted on reviewing something I was aware of with the ratings that have no impact on anything. 

And this was not my time only. My manager was a highly intelligent professional whose time could have been better spent otherwise, and in addition, performance reviews were not his strong point anyway. I remember that during a performance review, I gave him my feedback and he stated that this is my review, not his, so this is the wrong time for that conversation. But this will be covered in my next blog post on managerial view on performance review.

First year into my current job, I had my first performance review which totally changed the way I thought about this process. My manager provides ongoing feedback on a daily basis which I appreciate and find very helpful. While daily input highlights specific examples, situations, behaviors, it takes an extra step to see a pattern. This is what annual review is like. While my annual review had specific examples, it indicated my areas of strength and weaknesses, many of them I was aware but did not think they were that obvious, some of them I was not aware and did not know my actions were perceived this way. During my performance review, I shared some thoughts on how I am planning to improve identified weaknesses, and got specific input and advice on those. In addition, my manager got feedback from a significant number of our colleagues in different roles – manager, product owner, scrum master, team member, executive director - and gave me citations without specifying their names. He insisted that respondents provided opportunities for improvement, so the feedback was specific and actionable. I loved it.

What did I learn about myself?
I am rigid. Hmm… I never thought of myself as rigid, and I still don’t. I listen and I am eager to compromise and put myself in others’ shoes regarding things that are not of a primary importance to me. As an Agile Coach, I am passionate though regarding things that I believe in such as standing at standup meetings, or having a scheduled day/time for sprint reviews (demo), and I take time to talk to the teams about the reasoning and the negative impact of sit-down standups or demos with no stakeholders because of last minute notice where the team feel discouraged rather than excited. And I always state it to the teams and I thought that this knowledge is well received, but I found out this is not the case.

What I learned though is that I am perceived as rigid. This was the biggest win. I did not adjust my beliefs, I adjusted my behavior. So I talk more about the reasons and – unlike me a year ago – I let teams try and fail (any they inevitably fail), and then we discuss the reasons at a retro and go back to standing standups and repeated demos. And sometimes teams continue this practice (I have one team that strongly feels this way) and this hurts their productivity, and – you know what – I am not going to force them, but I will continue providing feedback and working with them until they mature enough to see the value in standing. And for now – let them sit at a table checking their smart phones and losing focus – and I am not going to force them but I will highlight specific cases when participants do not hear questions they are being asked or replies are not related to the topic.

Actually, I think I have been a little bit rigid and I still am – at heart – but now I know that you cannot force people do right things, you have to give them time to understand this. Otherwise they will eventually roll back to bad practices anyway. Such a basic wisdom but it took me a performance review to figure it out.

What else did I learn?
Opinions are subjective. One respondent says that my communication is highly efficient, the other says that my communication needs to be improved. A set of post-presentation surveys gave my presentations a high average rating of 3.8 out of 4, while one of respondents says that my presentation skills are poor. A question: Should it bother you if you get any controversial reviews? My answer is: No. It is important for me not to take any of this controversial feedback personally but, rather, seek for ways of improvement. Even if I am good in something, negative response means that there are still ways to improve (aren’t there always?). So what I derived is my communication may be good but the level of details has to be better targeted to the level of my audience. Or, my presentations are generally not bad but I tend to speak fast and I should ask for more input from the audience.

Based on my performance review and citations provided, I came up with my improvement list and then improvement plan. Once I compiled the list, I put it on the wall and the file on my desktop. I check it frequently and I move ahead with my plan. I may not become the best presenter in the world (maybe not even on my team), but I know that I am getting better. I have read some books, listened to a few outstanding speeches, gave it some thought, and practiced a lot. So – right or wrong – this feedback was a great trigger for me to work on something and become better in it. And I told my manager that it has been my best performance review ever. I got great input into setting up goals for this year and inspiration to work on a number of good things, which I know will make me a better professional.

So – the point that I am making: performance appraisal process is good. It is bad implementations that make it inefficient. I encourage you to think how you can take advantage of your performance appraisal, what questions you can ask your manager, and which action items plan after you get it.

My next blog posting is on a different perspective. This one was from employee standpoint. In the next one, I will talk about what you can do for your direct reports as a manager but I plan to do it differently. I won’t talk about how you can benefit from the process, rather, I will talk about greatest mistakes managers do in their performance appraisals and how these mistakes may hurt their employees and their morale, and even lead to consequences these managers would never foresee. Trust me – I have made some of these mistakes myself and suffered from others, so I will be glad to share my firsthand experience with you.

I welcome any feedback. What is your experience with performance appraisals? Did you ever find those helpful?


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