Why Performance Reviews Don’t Work In IT

by drjim on April 22, 2010

Performance Reviews Should Be Kid’s Stuff, But They Aren’t

Performance Reviews Should Be Kid’s Stuff, But They Aren’t

For just one article, let’s be brutally honest here. Let’s spend just a moment talking about that annual rite of passage that all IT Leaders and workers go through: the annual performance review. These conversations are lies and falsehoods build on conflicting goals that serve nobody’s best interest. Do I have your attention now?

Performance Really Doesn’t Relate To Pay

Think about the last time that you had a performance talk with your boss. You entered his / her office (or these days you picked up the phone because they are located “somewhere else”) and you steeled yourself for “the talk” . No, we’re not having one of those “the birds & the bees” talks, rather we’re getting ready to have a talk about something far more difficult to talk about: money.

Let’s put a stake into one of the longest running myths out there: this talk has nothing to do with the amount of raise that you are (or are not) going to be getting. The amount of a raise that you are going to get in any given year is determined by market forces, not your boss.

In fact, it’s probably your boss’ boss who is setting the raises for this year. Toss in a bit of consideration for the company’s annual budget for that year and you’ve got the makings of a done deal long before you sit down to have a discussion with your boss.

Unfortunately what this means is that the discussion that you will be having with your boss or that you will be having with your team is really just an attempt to justify the predetermined amount of raise that is being doled out. At the end of the day, a performance review really has little or nothing to do with your (or your team’s) performance.

Just How Objective Is A Performance Review?

As long as we are taking a swing at performance reviews, let’s go all out. Another myth that we need to dispense with is the assumption that a performance review is an objective review of a person’s accomplishments or failures.

Look, there’s no way that this could be objective. Dr. Samuel Culbert said it best when he said that an evaluation is a way of confirming that “Where you stand determines what you see.”

In the end, a performance review of an IT worker is probably as much about how the manager sees the worker as it is about how the worker has actually performed. That doesn’t really seem fair, now does it?

What All Of This Means For You

So the performance review system is broken. At least that’s something that we can all agree on. It’s not enough to just sit there and complain, we need to find a way to fix it. It turns out that the solution is actually rather simple (in concept).

What’s been missing all along is the idea of having a manager and the worker sit down BEFORE the performance period and agree on what needs to be done. Since the real job of any IT Leader is to work with their team and coach, teach, guide, and assist them to be successful, it sure seems to make sense that agreeing on what needs to be done before the work is to be done is a good way to have a shared sense of what needs to be done.

This simplifies the post work communication. Instead of having a meaningless discussion about a bunch of vague performance characteristics, you can have a detailed discussion about actual goals and what happened with them. This is much harder to do, but ultimately much more useful to all parties involved.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Management Knowledge

Question For You: Do you think that doing performance assessments before the work was done would work at your company?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

As IT Leaders who live in troubling times we are always trying to do two things: hold on to our jobs and be more successful. One of the best ways to do both of these, or so we have been told, is to go out and get an MBA. Well that’s all great and fine if you’ve got four or five years to burn, don’t need to do anything else at night, oh and have a big chunk of cash sitting around that you had no other plans for. Maybe it’s time to look for a better way to accomplish what we’re trying to do…

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Joe Fox April 22, 2010 at 11:55 am

I agree with you that performance appraisals are broken — but I disagree that, in some organizations, pay is not tied to performance. I am rewarded well because of my extra work and the abilities I bring to this team. While many (perhaps most) organizations don’t do this properly — some do, and I work for one of the best in that regard.

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Dr. Jim Anderson April 23, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Joe: congratulations! Clearly you’ve landed in the right place — a company that “gets” performance reviews. I’d urge you to make the most of the time that you have at this company. How did they come up with the system that works? Can they keep it in place as the company grows (or shrinks!)? Ultimately it sure seems like you’ve found yourself in a great learning opportunity…

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