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Sail or Anchor?

A recent “issue” at work led me down this particular path of pondering today; how do we evaluate or assess people’s work performance?

Let me explain; as many of us have read or heard, there is the whole type A or type B personality model for managers/bosses. Agitated, angry, impatient, short tempered vitriolic for type A and kind, thoughtful, generous, and stable for type B. Frankly, I do not for a second believe in such a digital, binary model; it is surely more analog with gradients of traits or characteristics all along the path from point A to point B. But it is a commonly referenced model (or at least used to be) and it works at the base level for this exercise.

The annual performance review. In school it was called the report card and judgement was passed with letter or number grades, which reflected how you had performed on tests, quizzes, homework, projects, and papers, with perhaps a little subjectivity thrown in for “classroom participation”. But there are not many tests or quizzes at work, certainly none so designed as to assess our performance over the entire year. The review, as hard as companies might try for it not to be, is essentially a snapshot of your immediate supervisor’s recollection of the last 12 months, which typically and unfortunately means the last 12 days.

Oh sure, you can find a few supervisors that actually keep decent notes or logs that document their employees’ performance. But even those tend to be far more weighted with the negative than the positive. Consider a project important to your boss; if it’s important to him it is surely important to your boss’s boss – right? So when you execute it successfully, your boss will be happy because he or she wants their boss to be happy. And so on up the ladder. And what ends up happening is that everyone is so busy celebrating the success that no one writes it down in their log. And unless you are fortunate enough for the success to have occurred right around review time, come review time it’ll have likely been forgotten. But screw it up; forget a critical task, misjudge a timeframe, or somehow fumble the task and cause its failure and I guarantee you that a whole host of people above you will remember it come review time! Sad but true.

And certainly many companies are working very hard every year to turn the annual performance review into something more than a vague recollection of the last year. It should be a dialogue, an exchange of thoughts on how the last year went: what went well and what did not; how to improve upon one’s performance in the coming year; how to nurture and “grow” the employee.

The questions managers must address for their employees, and the goal from it all, is to help them better themselves, thus to better their performance, thus to better the company’s performance. What went well? What did not go well? Why? How do we fix that?

Notice that the “what went well” part got a single question while the “what did not go well” part has two more questions associated with it: why and how to fix. Because the successes are in the past and gone, but the failures remain stains on you, your boss, and probably their boss, possibly up to the president’s level. No one likes to live under the pall of a failure.

But let’s consider our people. They are not fully a cross section of society, but close. They are, overall, good people with good intentions who want to earn a living and to provide for their loved ones in exchange for their self-investment  by means of their specific skill, mental capacity, knowledge, strength, or good ole’ fashioned hard labor. Work is a contract of sorts between management, the company, and the workers. Provide the best possible safe working conditions, the best possible wages, and the best possible benefits in exchange for 40 hours (generally) of the employee’s life devoted to achieving the goals and objectives of the company. That could be to bake bread, mow lawns, build houses, design video games, sell cars, or whatever. Your specific skill could be writing computer programs, doing the company finances and accounting, monitoring safety, changing the lightbulbs, welding, or some other skill. But whatever it is, you trade it for benefits and income.

But whatever the product or service is, it will not – cannot – materialize without people doing their jobs. Bosses don’t make the product, managers don’t make the product, and the president doesn’t make the product. On a twist of an old adage, those who can’t, manage. OK – not really, but you get it; it is the workers that do the work (hence the moniker, thank you Captain Obvious). Without them, all is lost. And we managers can forget that sometimes.

They fight their way in through the weather every day; the wind, the rain, the cold, while the managers usually get to park right at the door. They struggle with poorly written procedures, inadequate training, lack of resources, and unclear direction. They struggle with supervisors busy promoting their own careers; too busy to answer the workers’ questions or address their concerns. They work in the harsh conditions or unreal time schedules. They come in wanting to do a good job, to perform well. They want to work but management does not always enable that and certainly does not always recognize that.

And then it’s review time.

Are you type A or B? Do you point out their good qualities or their flaws? Do you highlight their successes or their failures? Do you value them or criticize them? I’ve seen both and experienced both in my years. Even knowing that type A managers are good people with strong moral fiber and values, they are more likely to take the approach that you can’t grow without setting goals, measuring performance, and identifying where the employee fell short. It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken. Find the flaws, develop a plan to correct them, repeat.

My company is atop the list in its field; best of the best in what we do. We got there, and stay there, by being extremely self-critical. We all suck and we can prove that, demonstrate that fact, with, easily, dozens of charts, graphs, and supporting metrics to show it. We thrive on self-critical behavior. And that works fine on a process. And it can even work fine at the manager level. But I firmly believe it fails miserably at the worker level.

People know their flaws, their weaknesses, and their faults. They don’t want that pointed out in their one annual performance review. Personally I think the review should focus on the positive; what they did well, where they excel, what special attribute they bring to the organization. Uplift them; praise them – honestly of course – but accentuate their successes. Absolutely, my job as a manager is to help my employees to grow. And to grow they need goals that challenge and stretch them; goals that will make them better. And those have to be part of the evaluation process. But not “in your face” style; more like seasoning in the mix. Critical performance assessment should be sprinkled in throughout the overall review, the bulk of which is recognizing their strengths and contributions.

Of course, there are those few employees who do not fit the standard profile. They come to work thinking it is a WPA program; money for nothing. They come not to excel or achieve, but to get all they can in return for as little effort as possible. They do deserve the hard line type of performance review. But I still believe in the goodness of people and I have faith that ultimately we all really do want to be positive and contributing members of society. But fear holds some back, so they front themselves with apathy and indifference and an apparent lack of commitment. So believing that, as harsh as the review may need to be, it still needs to be reinforced with positives, with recognition of their innate worth – demonstrated by them or not.

While I began this with the type A / type B analogy, it is really not that – not directly. This is more about how to you help people to grow, to flourish. Do you do so with praise and recognition? Or do you do so by making them see their flaws and weaknesses and force them to go work on them? To me that answer is easy: do you need a sail or an anchor to move across the water?

I am what I am Popeye says. To thine own self be true said Shakespeare. We all know ourselves and where we suck; we don’t need our boss to point it out. Certainly give me a goal or two to help me grow in that area; but do not try to change my nature beyond what I am.

Forgive this raw and base metaphor, but in the clinical perspective, people are tools. And if you’ve ever done any work around the house, be that carpentry, electrical, plumbing, or construction, you have a heaping pile of tools. Show me a good auto mechanic and he has more than a pair of Vice-Grips and an adjustable wrench; he has hundreds of tools, each with a special and specific purpose. You wouldn’t use a Phillips head screwdriver to drive a slotted screw would you? Wouldn’t force it and make it fit, make it work would you?

Likewise, see the individual and unique special talents of each of your employees and use those skills – take advantage of them. Don’t make a free and radical thinker crunch numbers all day long and don’t criticize them for not being more analytical. Instead compliment them on their out of the box thinking style and help them develop that skill in their job. And if analytical skills are an important job requirement, maybe sneak an Excel course into their goals for the next year. But be a sail, not an anchor. Today’s thoughts from an old Wolff dear reader.

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