Performance Previews, Teamwork, and Other Corporate Drivel
November 18, 2008 ‐ 2 comments

4158S0jJLGLA few months ago, this blog mentioned Samuel Culbert's book on the pro's and con's of bullsh*t in the workplace. Well, one of our favorite organizational renegades is at it again, this time skewering that revered corporate tradition - the performance review. His article is worth a read. But for those of you who prefer the CliffsNotes...

His basic point is that performance reviews serve more to underscore the reporting hierarchy than to actually improve performance. Rather, he argues in favor of 'performance previews', in which a manager and a report consider how they can work together to ensure that the employee is successful (since, he posits, managers should be held accountable for their reports' performance): The preview structure keeps the focus on the future and what "I" need from you as "teammate and partner"...

We like the sentiment, but we call, well, bullsh*t.

First of all, Culbert's idea is not revolutionary, despite the sense he tries to create that he is slaughtering a sacred cow. His concept of a preview is really just a performance review done well. Past is prologue, and any forward-looking plan requires an analysis of preceding events. And even if a review does focus solely on past performance, it doesn't require much of a mental leap for an employee to infer what their manager's criticism and praise mean in terms of future expectations. Sorry Sam, but the subtle addition of the letter 'p' in a reverse-psychology attempt to show how revolutionary your idea is by showing how simple it is just doesn't work for us.

Second of all, we're sick of hearing about teams where teams don't belong. Teams and teamwork have become the corporate world's version of American Flag lapel pins, and they're losing their true meaning as a result. Let us be clear: when a boss gives an order and someone carries it out, that is not teamwork, and that is okay. An effective chain of command can get amazing things done - just ask the army. When, on the other hand, an employee helps a colleague meet a tight deadline, that is teamwork. A flat organization with overlapping responsibilities can also achieve incredible results - just ask the open source community. Sorry again Sam, but a team is defined as a group of players, and the coach is not one of those players.

We believe that performance reviews can work, but they can't be only annual, they can't be exclusively from boss to direct report, and they need to blend rigorous objective standards with subjective feedback. Reviews need to be part of a constant and virtuous feedback loop among networks of colleagues. They need to happen top-down, bottom-up, and side-to-side. They need to take into account the fact that these are people working together, and organizations need to trust those people to make subjective judgements about performance.

Which brings us dangerously close to another on our hit list of corporate nonsense: "Our people." If we only had a nickel for each organization for which it's The People that make the difference, we might never have to worry about another performance review again...

If you have any of your own favorites, please feel 'empowered' to share them.

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November 23, 2008 1:22 pm
Thanks for the reference to the Corsello article Mike. Here's the link:
Mike Carden
November 23, 2008 4:31 am
I do like Culbert’s common thread of managers, subordinates and HR working cross purposes. We’ve all seen this, it may be preaching to the choir, but every day I come across businesses where the whole performance process feels like the edict of a distant HR department, and not something at all useful for the managers and staff involved. I am borrowing from Jason Corsello’s equally provocative piece “We Are Doing Performance Management All Wrong” here, but put simply performance management should not be about automating the performance review process, but rather about equipping everyone in the organization to make better decisions about people.

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