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Performance Reviews Simplified

If you were to ask people in the corporate world about the most significant moments of their careers, a lot of them would probably talk about annual performance reviews. That’s a curious thing. Anyone who talks about performance reviews when asked this question is not talking about an idea they had that saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars or about rescuing a project that had gone sideways. Instead, their careers were defined sitting in a room with their managers, going through a worksheet that purports to address how well they’ve matched up against the company’s ‘values.’

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Of course, it’s not really weird at all. These reviews are where they learn their fates. Reminiscent of the college admissions process, annual reviews are dates circled on the calendar that will reveal to them, in a grand unveiling, whether they’ve made the cut or not. It is in the annual review that they learn about major promotions or performance improvement plans (PIPs). Even if an organization has periodic managerial one on ones or encourages more frequent feedback, the review is what counts.

Now, in the face of this intensely paternalistic and waterfall-ish practice, it’s not surprising that organizations have asked the question, “how can we make this more productive and less… infantilizing?” Having more frequent, actually meaningful reviews may be bandied about but there are actual, tactical problems with this, not the least of which is that fiscal budgets tend to be made once per year (and, often as not, the annual review is evaluation theater to assign a narrative to a financial decision about an employee that has already been made). So a lot of organizations punt on frequency and try, instead, to chip away at the “Santa determining whether his children were naughty or nice” vibe.

Enter the “360 review.” The 360 review is an extremely superficial effort to transform organizational power from representable as a tree structure to representable as an undirected graph (for those of you who aren’t mathy-CS-y people, think of this as a mind map/idea web). Traditional management resembles the military and has superiors passing judgment on subordinates. But the 360 review says, “everyone reviews everyone they interact with.” Pretty progressive, right?

To devolve into teeny-bopper speak for a moment (or my 30-something perception of it, anyway): lulz. This makes me think of telling a deer, “we’re not that kind of forest where the wolves just hunt you and you can’t do anything about it – we’re the kind of forest where you can leave a sternly worded letter telling wolves that you don’t like to be hunted!” The 360 review concept is a complete farce with incredibly perverse incentives. Imagine you’re the wolf seeing the deer’s complaint about you – now you’re not just going to kill the deer, but you’re also going to make it suffer. A 360 review doesn’t alter the flow of power in an organization in the slightest. It just creates the illusion of progressiveness while (no offense intended) naturally selecting those naive enough to be honest out of the organization.

In contrast to the 360 review or traditional, financially driven evaluations, I have a concept for how organizations can evaluate employees at any level of the organization. I don’t honestly know if this is a particularly great idea, but it does have the advantages of being extremely simple and extremely easy to administer. It’s simply one question, administered confidentially: “would you work with this person again?” Peers on a project, bosses and subordinates, project managers and engineers… it doesn’t matter. Any two people that work together have this question posed to them at some increment. To make it concrete, let’s say that every month, they receive a form to fill out with a list of everyone you interact with and a checkbox: “check if you’d work with this person again.” And, importantly, they have to believe that their answer affects the outcome – if they say no, it’s less likely that they’ll be partnered with the person in question on future initiatives.

My hypothesis is that this will very quickly tell you who the most valuable employees in your organization are, regardless of level. Think of a project team, and it’s perfect; what could speak better to an individual’s value on the project than whether her collaborators want to work with her again or not? If you have a line manager in your organization that seems to get results, but literally no one reporting to him wants to work for him again, that’s a smell. Likewise, if you have a manager that doesn’t seem to get results, but commands undying loyalty, there may be more going on than meets the eye.

The first objection that probably comes to mind is that of a lazy manager with a lazy group of reports. Isn’t it possible that they’d all conspire together and happily work together again as a group with no accountability? My answer to that is: “really? Come on.” How likely is it that you wind up with an entire group of people that are lazy and dishonest and united enough in that cause to game this system? A group of people like this is sure to be failing spectacularly at delivering, and failure tends to breed scapegoating, particularly among the type of people that would go in for a “let’s not hold each other accountable” pact. Those types are the first to throw each other under the bus – they wouldn’t check anyone if a project was going badly because they could later claim that it was everyone’s fault but theirs.

But what about the Gregory House Conundrum — what about an incredibly productive worker that is insufferable? Wouldn’t he be a false negative in my system? Again, I don’t think this would be an actual problem. If Gregory House were a real person, saving lots of real lives, I think that people would check the box even if they hated him and wanted to gouge their eyes out after spending more than a few minutes with him. People would tick the box for someone that good because they understood the likelihood of success.

At the end of the day, it comes down to a relatively simple proposition. I think that there is a great deal of intelligence distributed throughout a company. I think that the people that interact with someone, as a group, are much better at deciding someone’s worth than wisdom trickled down through a corporate tree structure. Being a manager doesn’t mean that you’re uniquely qualified to assess someone’s worth, so let’s stop going this route when it comes to employee evaluation. Instead, let’s crowdsource it.

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Geoff Mazeroff
Guest
This is an interesting thought experiment to condense multiple evaluations of an individual to a simple binary response. I would make one modification and state it as, “One a scale of 1 to 10, how would you feel about working with this person again?” That would help deal with the extremes (e.g., Dr. House). As an industry, I don’t know if we’ve decided how to handle brilliant jerks (other than complain about them). My personal take is that it would be a win-win for them to find jobs/careers where they can have interactions kept to a minimum. If you’re part… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest

The idea of introducing a scale instead of a binary choice is interesting. On the one hand, it introduces more subjectivity, but, on the other hand, it probably scales to small groups better.

Amitai Schlair
Guest

I’m proud (?) to say that when faced with 360s, I put a lot of work into writing them, and they were almost unanimously taken far less seriously than I took them. The flow of power indeed did not change, and I indeed eventually selected myself out of that organization.

Erik Dietrich
Guest
That raises a path I didn’t consider when talking about naivete, but one of which I’m actually a big fan. Do things the way you think they should be done, and interpret negative feedback as a sign of poor fit. For example, over the years, I’ve been a lot more honest and less diplomatic about things in interviews, reasoning that if “I do TDD all of the time” is too ‘extreme’ for the interviewer, it probably wouldn’t be a good fit anyway. (I’ve learned the value of this the hard way). So, yeah. Do the 360 review thing, reasoning that… Read more »
Jacob Appleton
Guest
The idea is interesting, and I feel a lot of objections can be soothed if it is considered an indicator of somewhere that deeper investigation needs to take place. For example, if someone is consistently scoring high/low on the “would you work with them” scale, then it becomes the responsibility of management to investigate why that is happening, rather than just promoting or firing based on the results alone. That being said, with the right culture, in small teams, I don’t feel that a good manager should require such a survey to be able to judge how well someone interacts… Read more »
Erik Dietrich
Guest
What I really had in mind when I was writing this article was mid-sized organizations. I agree that this doesn’t scale well to the small, necessarily. But, there is an interesting persona that might make it useful even there — person who is a good team player, keeps a cheerful front, but is quietly unhappy about working with a certain team member. I also think the idea that this should trigger an investigation rather than serve, per se, as the entire evaluation has merit. I just like the idea of a more broadly scoped piece of quasi-objective feedback as opposed… Read more »
fred
Guest

“If you were to ask people in the corporate world about the most
significant moments of their careers, a lot of them would probably talk
about annual performance reviews.”
Really??
I worked in a corporate environment for the last 15 years and those reviews were mostly an annoying waste of time. As you mentioned in your article we usually know what to expect at those. My most significant moment would probably be about the thing i helped create. 🙂
That being said, cool article 🙂

Erik Dietrich
Guest
Good to hear 🙂 I’m going largely based on what I’ve heard from people anecdotally over the years. Usually it’s “the big promotion” or “didn’t get the big promotion I expected” or “got a negative review and decided I’d move on.” Some variant of those, anyway. Not that there aren’t exceptions and not that those reviews aren’t usually mundane slogs through what everyone already knows will happen… just that employees’ tend to be valued by the organization through this tree structure of rating rather than through value-based outcomes. It’d be interesting to ask people “what are the biggest moments of… Read more »
fred
Guest

That’s interesting. I find it a bit depressing to be so self centered. At some point i’d like to be able to say i’m proud of achieving something, not going to work to kill time and wait for the next promotion. That’s probably why i was so unhappy in the corporate world….. it just took me 15 years to realize it 🙂

Aleh Filipovich
Guest

I guess another side of ‘Gregory House’ is “nice guy” who does not annoy coworkers but is useless for the org.

Perhaps question like “Do you feel comfortable about your career depending on this person performance?” would be more telling.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

That’s an interesting take. I like the concept, though I think it sets up for false negatives. I think people might not check — the box for *anyone* — I mean, there’s not a lot of upside to saying “yes.”