Annual Reviews

Here at Humantech it is time for performance reviews. And it must be in other places too, because Kathy Sierra, and Seth Gooden both touched on key points in my thinking about performance review yesterday.

I have a love/hate relationship with performance reviews, but I thought it might be worthwhile to mention what I’ve learned so far about how to do them well. This is especially worthwhile since I think most of what has been written on the subject is either insipid, lame, borderline psychotic, or just plain stupid.

I’ve read articles and gone to training where they tell you how to empathize, how to use better body posture, and how to set up the room to make your employees more comfortable. If you are socially awkward, and don’t have a good relationship with your employees, this might be helpful, but mostly it’s just trivia. Performance reviews ought to be about one thing — performance.

Focus on Performance:

Cut through the crap. If you follow the advice of most of the classes, and articles, you’d find a couple (no more than three) areas of weakness and focus on “fixing” them. This is backwards, and it is dangerous. You should not think of employees as something like a broken dishwasher that needs to be fixed. And you should be focusing on performance — focus on what they are doing right, and what they need to do to accelerate that performance. Kathy Sierra calls this “mediocrity by areas of improvement” If you divert a programmer’s attention from improving their day-to-day code writing processes, and focus him on cleaning his desk or
learning to “be more social” you’re not focusing on performance.

Focus on what the co-worker you manage does well, focus on how to improve that, focus on her as a person, and what she can to to achieve mastery of her job. Your goal is not to turn her into a well rounded person, but rather to focus her energies and effort on the areas where she can become great and therefore make the most impact on your company’s reputation and performance.

But you need to be able to look at and measure performance. This is where Seth Goodin’s resent post on “making your number” comes in. People will do whatever it takes to make their number, so make sure that you are measuring the right number. Seth shows a woman “cheating” the stair master to improve her ability to perform at a higher difficulty level on the machine. The problem is that she is measuring the wrong metric — if she had a goal of sustaining a heart rate between 145 and 155, she’d be more likely to stay healthy, and would have no way to cheat her metric.

When you measure the performance of your employees, you want to measure what is really important — otherwise people will do what you ask them too, even if it’s the wrong thing to do.

“Route Around” weaknesses

Not everybody is amazing in every way — in fact no two people are amazing in the same way — so everybody has weaknesses. Some of those weakness don’t impact their job others do. You can safely ignore the first set because they aren’t performance limiting factors. The second set is more of a concern, you need to determine a path to route around these performance limiting weaknesses — most likely this can be done with a little creative job description re-jiggleing. Move areas of responsibility from one person’s weakness to another person’s strength.

Another method is to try to cut a thin path through this weakness to keep it from limiting performance to much.  This is different from focusing on weeknesses because your goal is not to turn this weekness into a strength, but rather to limit the impact the weekness on critical job performance issues.
Let Go of Your Need to Fix People

You need to honestly appraise your employee’s ability to achieve excellence in their current job. If they aren’t meeting expectations, and you’ve determined that you can’s change the job description, and training hasn’t helped:  you are now faced with a person who has weakness where their job requires strength.

At this point your job is to help them find a new job, where they can achieve excellence. If you are anything like me this is hard — but the key is learning that this is not a criticism of the value or abilities of your employee — there are literally hundreds of Nobel prize winners who are not right for this job.

You can’t fix them. They can’t be successful in this job, it’s not the place for them. But they could be wildly, amazingly, successful in the right job. Do your best to help them find that job. In the end, that’s the only way to be nice, because nobody likes constantly failing.

Separate the Money Discussion

People care about money — more than they think they do, and more than you think they should. So take care of this before you have the detailed performance review. If you can’t do it in a separate meeting, at least do it first thing in the actually review meeting. This will allow you to have a conversation about performance without every single statement being evaluated in economic terms. Remember this is not a “salary review” — it’s a performance review and absolutely everything ought to be subservient to the goal of having the best conversation about performance possible.

1 Response to “Annual Reviews”


  1. 1Katia

    That was a wonderful note!

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