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.’
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.