I’m going to describe three types of people. I call them average, elite, and ascendant. One of the differences between the three is how they approach performance reviews.
The dreaded performance review
A lot of companies and organizations have annual performance reviews where employees submit feedback on their coworkers and then it’s delivered anonymously through a manager. They tend to foster passive aggression and act as a too-late justification for bad managers to do what they knew they should but lacked the guts to do sooner and without more support. Whatever I think of them, they’re common and they provide a great opportunity to ascend pettiness and posturing.
Average people fear performance reviews. Their pain-avoidance drive makes them see only danger in the review. They work to ensure they are inoffensive and reduce risk of negative feedback with increased fervency leading up to review season. They are somewhat cautious in reviewing their peers. Eager to vent pent-up frustration, but also leery of dishing too hard something that might come back to them next go round.
Elite people relish review season. It’s an opportunity to maneuver and preen and undermine people in polite sounding language. They see reviews as a building block for a better title, pay raise, more prominent office, or a chance to weed out threats. The gossip and gamesmanship that come along with review season add to the juicy enjoyment.
Ascendant people are neutral on reviews. Reviews seem redundant, but if getting them done will help other things move forward, they’ll do it honestly and without a lot of fanfare. They see no reason to fear or relish the review, because they are not surprised by the results.
Blinded by nothing
I worked at a place where the entire year revolved around the performance review. Pay raises, organizational changes, hiring, firing, and promotions were all hinged on the process. The five or six people with whom you worked most frequently were supposed to login to a portal and score you and leave anonymous feedback on your performance. A manager would gather and aggregate the scores and feedback and then deliver it to you in a meeting as a unified body of general info. “The feedback you got was…” as if it came from a disembodied collective.
Some people would store up grudges and grievances, rubbing their hands at the thought of finally unleashing it in a blind review.
It didn’t seem worth it to fight against the process as a whole, so I tried to turn it into a more useful test of my own communication skills and work habits. It was a personal game. I set a standard for myself: if anything in my review came as a surprise to me, or if anything I said in my reviews of others came as a surprise to them, I’d failed.
I put my name on the reviews I left for people. I didn’t want them to be anonymous. I wanted to openly share what I thought about their performance and what it was like to work with them. I told everyone ahead of time I’d be putting my name on all my reviews and if anything I said came as a surprise to come tell me and we could figure out where communication had broken down. I worked with these people every day. If there was a problem or something praiseworthy, they should know it in real time, not be surprised by a review once a year.
I told people to be brutally honest in their reviews of me. Be anonymous if it helps. But if anything in anyone’s reviews of me came as a surprise, it reflected my failure to establish an open productive line of communication.
I was never surprised by reviews. I always knew exactly what I’d hear. I could usually identify who gave what feedback too, because they had already given it to me many times before. “You bowl over people in meetings”, “You rush to finish things and overlook important details”, “You are too dismissive of processes and norms”. I heard all of these things and none of them were a surprise. I knew that about myself and everyone who worked with me knew it about me and we both knew that we both knew. It was out in the open.
Ever since, I have used the blind review test to check myself. I walk through a mental exercise with two questions:
“If you were to honestly and anonymously review people you work and interact with, would they be surprised by anything you said?”
“If those who work and interact with you honestly and anonymous reviewed you, would you be surprised by what they said?”
If the answer to either question is yes, I force myself to get to the source of the problem and find a way to communicate it, or stop working with that person. There is no gain in an ongoing relationship with festering, unspoken problems. If the thought of anonymously reviewing someone fills me with vindictive triumph, I’ve got work to do on myself.
Ascend the fear and angling approaches to performance reviews – real or imagined – and use them as a test of your transparency, honesty, and communication. Everyone who matters should know where you stand with them and vice versa.
Isaac Morehouse is founder and CEO of Praxis. This is part of a series on the difference between average, elite, and ascendant.