Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reviewing Annual Performance

Well, it's that time of year again. The time of year when most American companies close out last year's books and evaluate the performance of the business. In evaluating business performance, every individual has the opportunity to be evaluated as well. Before "Belief Makers" and my new lens on the world, I felt really good about stewarding this process on behalf of business leaders across the world. Now, I have a new perspective. For the most part, performance evaluations are one person's version of the truth measured by their own beliefs and values. If you are lucky and happen to work for a "progressive" company, you may have the opportunity to receive 360 feedback and gather several people's version of the truth. Most importantly, if you work for a "really progressive" company you may be allowed to provide your own version of the truth but it doesn't usually count much toward the final "grade".

Many of us spend most of our waking hours at work and juggle family, friends, and hobbies in the few hours left. For some of us, this results in contributing over 2600 hours a year to the success of the company we work for. During the performance evaluation process, our managers and maybe a few others take a few hours, reflect on our contributions, and summarize the 2600 hours of accomplishments in a neat one pager. In addition, the "grade" or "rating" typically a word, phrase, or in more technical fields a number is intended to capture the essence of our contributions. Our company uses a 5 point scale with grades defined by "1-exceptional, 2- excellent, 3- successful, 4- inconsistent and 5- not meeting expectations". Now, although we have a 5 point scale, most managers won't use "exceptional" because they don't want you to think you are perfect and they don't use "not meeting expectations" because they can't stomach the conversation or the required action plan needed when using this rating. By default, we have a three point scale and since managers can barely stomach telling someone they are "inconsistent", 95% of our population has their year summed up as excellent or successful.

Now, the performance evaluation process is not really my issue. My real issue is how much value each individual places in their assessment. I have had highly talented, well-educated, senior leaders, accountable for the livelihood of thousands of people and budgets of well over a quarter of a billion dollars in my office in tears because they were rated "successful". What is most interesting is their argument that if their prior manager had stayed in their role, they know they would have been rated "excellent". Often times my initial response of "your probably right!" makes things worse for a few minutes until we can talk through their emotional response to a single word which in and of itself is quite complimentary, "successful" and more importantly that because one person calls it "successful" and another calls it "excellent" their actual contributions were the same.

Do your emotions change about something you accomplished if it is not valued by others?
Do you place more weight on one person's assessment verses another's? What criteria determines which assessment you value? How does the assessment of others impact your behavior?

What I learned for myself was that if I focused on how I grew throughout the year verses someone's assessment of me, I felt good regardless of the "rating". In general, the years I was rated lower than others, I actually learned more which opened up new opportunities for me. In the years where I was rated "excellent" I was deemed too important to a department to be given new and different opportunities and therefore although my rating was higher, I didn't learn or grow as much making me ultimately less valuable to the organization.

How do you define and measure your value?
How will you change your value in the world this year?

Love to all,


  1. Kathy, Thank you!

    I hadn't thought about performance reviews in a long time nor how we can make them mean so much about ourselves, rather than about how well our skill sets and beliefs are aligned with the requirements and beliefs of the people reviewing us.

    In response to your questions, a few years back, I decided not to allow others' assessments of my accomplishments affect my sense of accomplishment. Initially, I did this badly by ignoring "negative" feedback. Of course, that amounted to an environmental change rather than an internal change.

    As I got better at it, I started to better hear and understand the critique, which often turned out to be really useful. So, for me the trick has been filtering out the value-judgment and hearing the specifics, even asking probative questions regarding the specifics.

    I definitely place greater value on feedback from people whom I believe "know" what they're talking about or who have at least invested in learning about what they're talking about. However, it would be useful for me to get better at interpreting feedback from people who are less well informed.

    I tend to have a two-category scale for my own performance: unbelievably, amazingly great and crap. However, I've lately started to think about things by way of comparison. Whatever I'm working on, I find others who are the very best at it. Then I compare what I've done with what they've done to see the similarities and differences. This has started to change my scale from good-bad, to close-far. How close did I come to doing it the way someone really great would have done it?

    In regard to behavior, I've come to see all feedback as a measure of alignment. If someone really doesn't like what I'm doing, I feel that I've heard and understood the specifics, and we just don't agree, then it's time to leave. So, I guess my behavior would be change or leave.

    I think the biggest thing I want to change this year is to better value the things that come easily for me. I tend to dismiss them and place more emphasis on the things that are hard.

    Hmmm... great food for thought. Thank you!

  2. Kathy, Mark,

    Having deal with the R&R process at several different companies over the years, I've come to conclude that the process has led to mixed results. Some companies start it and keep it. Others keep it for a few years, then drop it for another process. In either case, it comes down to managers comparing people using different scales. In practice, groups of people on a project(s) make a project(s) successful so I've evaluated it on a team basis, then on an individual basis. It's often hard to separate the two.

    In many circumstances, one team will do very well but the project wasn't as ambitious as another team that appears not to have done as well. However, the point again is that the scales are different. It's like a diver who attempts a dive with a higher degree of difficulty. If the nail it, big success! More often than not, these ambitious divers come out behind a diver "playing it safe" with a less difficult dive. How does the play into the corporate process? Learn to take less risk? Interesting situation, isn't it?

    How to define your own value? For me, it's about making contributions that matter to the people around me. I believe that I am valuable to my wife when she needs my help if she can't lift a heavy bag. Valuable to others who need help. Does the converse mean that if I can't help, I have no value? Interesting.


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