The annual review reveals more about the manager’s performance than the employee’s performance (part 4)
In my previous articles (here, here and here), I discuss how the annual review process reveals more about the manager than the employee. The annual review’s text may be about the employee’s performance, but what really is powerful about the performance review is the subtext – what the review reveals about the manager’s practices as a manager.
Here are some more examples of what you can see in a performance review and what it says about the manager:
1. The incident that defines the whole year
Annual reviews were developed to review the whole year. Yet many reviews boil down to a particular incident during the course of the year. Both the manager and the employee may recount the incident, and use this as the basis for the employee’s performance. It might be interesting to see what the incident is. Did the employee disagree with the manager? Was the employee supported by the manager through the incident, or left hung out to dry? When this is observed, know that employees will work extra hard to avoid “the incident”, or work hard to re-define “the incident.” In any case, it should be rare, not common, that a single event could define someone’s work, and if that’s the case, it should be reflected in their goals.
Many employees fear that their manager has a bias toward or against various members of the team. The annual review is a great place to test this thesis. Does the manager reveal in the comments a preference to one employee over another? Is one employee looking for attention and another basking in it? One can read for tone as well as content to reveal the answer to these questions.
3. The lack of performance-based language
The Manager by Designsm blog writes frequently about using behavior-based language, also known as performance-based language (read here for a primer on how to tell if you are using performance-based/behavior-based language). The annual review should be a bastion of performance-based language, yet it is often the opposite. “Michael is the best!” “Andrea is a real go-getter!” “Pete doesn’t have what it takes,” “Aaron needs a better attitude.” These are generalizations and value judgments that reveal that the manager does not think in behavior-based terms, which indicates that the employee is probably being evaluated on impressions rather than performance.
4. The difficult review discussion
External to the actual form, do you have managers who dread the review period, talk about “difficult” reviews, and otherwise find the process difficult and cumbersome? This teaches you that the manager could be letting the management tasks slide until the review period comes along. There will be a lot of pent-up angst when this happens, and the review discussions will be necessarily difficult if you are trying to resolve a year’s worth of issues in one discussion. Remember, it is supposed to be a re-view, not a view into the employee’s performance.
5. The wildly variant employee ability across time
In this situation, the employee is a “star performer” one year, and a “weak performer” another year. What changed? It could be the employee, but if you assume that, you’re going to be right only some of the time. Other things probably have changed – the manager and/or the work challenge. If an employee was great on one team and terrible on another team, is it really the employee? If the employee was supported, had good processes and reasonable expectations, and they did well, that’s great. If the same employee joins a team with no processes, unreasonable work expectations, and a difficult political environment, we have just learned the difference of the managers (and the manager of managers), not the employee.
6. Only things the manager observes
A manager often comments on the review the things about the employee they have directly observed. This is generally a good idea, because the rest is hearsay. But what if we learn through the comments what it is that the manager has directly observed? If the manager only comments about the behavior of the employee during 1:1 discussions, team meetings, and emails/status reports to the manager, then we know that the manager is evaluating only employee behaviors in the context of interacting with the manager. You can forget about the work output, how the employee interacts with colleagues and customers, and other areas of performance. But if that employee is quiet during the team meeting, then it will appear on the review.
7. Relying on what “others” say
Similarly, a manager may focus on what others say to rate the employee. This could come from the boss’s boss, other team members, or the prior manager. If there is a dearth of other areas that are examined about the employee’s work output and ability to produce results, then this should be a cause of concern that the manager is more focused on political aspects of the work environment (“what are others saying”) and less on the work output and ongoing behaviors (“what did the employee do.”)
So for the budding Management Designers out there, how do you use the Annual Review to understand the management behaviors? Or are you leaving this rich artifact on the table and relying on other channels to learn about your managers?
Let me know your stories of how managers reveal their management practices on performance reviews.