This is a spin-off of Yesterday’s post about the recent performance review by my current employer. Short summary: it was a positive experience. The feedback was specific, systematic, actionable, and given in a friendly and constructive way. It was given verbally outdoor in the ‘field’, following observation, and followed up with a written report documenting and numerating what had been said.
I most of my previous jobs there either wasn’t a formalised process for performance review, or I worked as a casual, so it wasn’t for me, or: I never stayed long enough to experience it (mostly the case anyway). But every performance-review-like meeting I’ve experienced before hand (that I remember) was a terrifying experience.
Performance reviews as a form of terror
Performance reviews were a regular and formalised procedure when I worked in an export office. It was an event I feared well ahead of the appointed time. They took place in the General Manager’s office, and was a 2:1 situation – 2 managers VS me. The focus was on which mistakes I had done since last review. The General Manager had a list of them in his notes. I was terrified. He went through most of them one by one, and then flickered through the rest of his papers with a sigh as if there was so many more mistakes that he gave up on going through all of them.
What was most terrifying was that something always went terribly wrong within my area of responsibility in the week leading up to the review or even on the day of the review. Supply failure, logistics failure… something that set me in a bad light in time for the review and made me look like I was not in control of my work.
The 2nd manager, who assisted (I’ll call him ‘B’), tried to shield me. He tried to sneak in positive thing I had done, with the critique. The evaluation was rounded off with a set of objectives for next time. They were usually uninspiring. One was ‘zero mistakes from now on’. B tried to make it easier to achieve the objective by specifying an area it related to and reduce its size.
I perceived the reviews as Management’s free pass to crush my self confidence and keep down my salary. A colleague from the same workplace told me that that’s what performance reviews are all about: just BS designed to diminish workers’ self confidence and keep wages down. She refused to do hers… In fact she had crumbled her review form into a paper ball in front of Management, smiled and gone back to work.
She was an elderly and extremely competent hands-on lady with over 20 years of industry experience and so obviously underemployed, that Management treated her like a precious egg, so she could afford herself to be the eccentric queen of the office.
Objectives and corporate reality check
In the last performance review I had in that workplace, the company’s external HR/management consultant conducted the review together with the GM, replacing B in the meeting. I’ll call him Mr. X here. Mr. X brushed off the cavalcade of failures the GM lined up, and focused on what I thought I was good at and would like to do; in which direction I would like to move. I switched on.
The company was in the process of integrating an ERP system, and I was eager to play a role in the integration; I felt I had a big comparative advantage with IT in that workplace. Mr. X and the GM eventually outlined an exciting objective: I was to be the go-to systems person for design and print of the reports that people in different areas needed to see how their areas were doing. I loved that idea! That meant I would get to explore the system and understand how the business processes tied up together across different areas.
However, come everyday it turned out that Management didn’t trust me enough to raise my security level so I could access the relevant software modules. The functions were all invisible in my version of the software. The GM said ‘Don’t worry, you will get access, just not right now. It is all still new and we need to know the system better first’.
So I explored every corner of the sections I had access to and read most of the instruction manuals including stuff I couldn’t relate to; hoping that it would stick in my brain and be ready for when I needed it: which was when I would get access to those sections. I was excluded from all but the most basic (few) training sessions and meetings about the new system, and predicted that my chance to pursue my objective would be brief and elusive.
Management sometimes suddenly called me in to sort out user problems in the sections of the software that I had never seen before – looking at e.g. the GM’s screen – and then, when I didn’t know how to solve it, it seemed like proof that I wasn’t as competent as I thought. My frustration with the lack of access grew, and the enthusiasm for the systems integration matured into bitter obsession. I couldn’t just let go of the objective, my mind was captured, and I valued everything else I did according to whether it gave know how that related to the system.
I was over-eager to help people figure out the basic user functions and solve user issues; to the point where it seemed to annoy them. They (except my direct boss) asked me to help only if and when they ran out of other people to ask and still couldn’t do what they wanted to do.
So I started to answer questions they didn’t ask me. I couldn’t help myself when I heard them ask questions I could answer, and heard that others couldn’t or gave wrong answers. It was an open plan office, so I could hear what people said, but they didn’t seem to like my determination to help very much. I couldn’t give it up because I wanted to help them not for their sake, but to learn… in pursue of my objective.
Over time, it seemed like the distrust grew rather than diminished. Even B seemed to be wary of me, like I was some sort of spy in the workplace. My direct boss trusted me, but had to follow Management’s directions and sentiments. Almost a year later little had changed, and I never made it to the next performance review. I quit. Once I left the company, I finally let go and didn’t care about the objective anymore.
So this was the story about how destructive performance reviews can be when they are done poorly as well as when they are done well and objectives are then not followed up with real life integration.
- Forbes: Ten Biggest Mistakes Bosses Make in Performance Reviews
- CEO Online: Turning Negative Feedback into a Positive Experience*
*There is an annoying pop-up, but the article is good.