Thursday, June 30, 2011

Performance Management: It's Actually Not a Waste of Time

We're coming up on the start of our performance review cycle here at work where there will be much gnashing of teeth, tearing of garments, soliloquies about the momentous accomplishments achieved, and anxiety over whether or not your boss thinks you did anything worthwhile... or at least to some that can be the mindset associated with the dreaded performance management process. It's quite natural to feel a significant amount of anxiety around this process for more than a few reasons--you are being evaluated by another person, you may or may not be promoted, your pay may change, and you have to attempt to grade yourself without sounding either self-deprecating or over-congratulatory. It doesn't necessarily have to be this way, though.

Many people try to avoid the performance management topic as much as possible and simply trudge through it at the end of the year because they have to. It's not something important, it's not something meaningful, and it's viewed lower on the priorities list than any other task being worked on. I held this mindset when I entered the working world, partially because I felt I was awesome at everything and didn't see the benefits that came out of the process, and partially because I didn't see any tangible benefits outside of my next raise. Of course there weren't going to be any benefits if I didn't take it seriously. Just like any one-way conversation, the person not invested will get nothing out of it. So if you have performance management anxiety or think that it does nothing for you, I may have a few things to offer from my personal experience that can transform performance management from a chore into a tool to get you where you want to be.

Get Invested

Frankly, if you don't have a care in the world about the performance management process your mind is made up that you'll get nothing from it and, more than likely, your manager or coach won't care a whole lot to do more than the bare minimum when rating you.  That doesn't help anyone and actually does make the process a useless waste of everyone's time.  However, even if you don't believe in the process, forcing yourself to get involved achieves two things--it gets your manager to note that you care about your development and, more importantly, it puts your manager on task to invest time and effort into truly evaluating you and your work. Shirking the process or avoiding meetings or tasks associated to it shows that you don't value it, but if you attend, engage, and force a smile (if you have to) it will do wonders for both of you because you'll start to look deeply at your work, your attitude, and your overall contribution, identifying what you are simply amazing at doing and, as a seemingly unfortunate byproduct (it's really not!), what you could improve.

Take the Initiative

This may be one of the toughest things to do when it comes to performance management, but it may also be the most important. Instead of waiting for each of the dreaded meetings you'll have with your manager or coach about "how well you did this year," take the lead and schedule some time with your boss to discuss how you've been doing. To really catch him or her off-guard, go outside of the standard performance management timeline and schedule your own meetings with your manager to discuss how things are going, ideally setting up something that is recurring throughout the course of the year.

By taking a peak at your performance and discussing it on a regular basis, once the year's end rolls around your final ratings from your boss shouldn't come as a huge surprise--you should already have a general idea of where you stand. You can also identify potential weaknesses to strengthen or pitfalls to avoid as the year goes on if you talk about what's happening in your work throughout the year. By doing this, you will also have demonstrable proof (assuming you keep notes) that you were improving, doing what was expected, or going beyond what was asked.  You're not stuck scratching your head at the end of the year trying to remember what you've done. Instead you have the groundwork already laid for your final assessment discussions.

Find Out "What It Takes"

We all want promotions. We all want more pay. We all want more perks. So how do you ensure that you get them? Ask.  It's a pretty simple concept, but it can often be hard to bring up or to get your manager to give you a well articulated answer. However, be direct and find out exactly what you need to do to reach the next level. You might need to initially settle for generalizations since your boss may not have actually thought this through in detail, but if you are both invested in your development, hopefully he or she will give some thought to the topic and have something specific to provide to you in time.

Once you know what you need to do, go do it!  Sounds easy, right? In some cases, sure, it'll be no sweat, but sometimes it may be more difficult. What it takes might be performing certain tasks that you don't have access to yet (like managing personnel... when you don't have any direct reports). If this is the case, explore with your manager how you can be put into situations where you have the opportunity to achieve what it'll take. It might not be something that can happen right away, but always be working to make it happen.


One of the toughest parts of being evaluated is being told what someone thinks you're not doing well or what your weaknesses are. It's easy to get defensive, to shrug off what someone says, or to attack back.  It's much tougher to take in criticisms, reflect on them, and discuss them. Yes, it sucks being told you could do something better, but be honest with yourself--we all have weaknesses and could all use a bit of improvement, so take the chance to do so!

It is important to get specifics about what you could shore up. Generalizations don't help you since you don't know exactly what you could do differently, and it doesn't help your manager since he or she is throwing such a wide net that improvements you may attempt to make slip through the net because it's not what he or she is specifically looking for. Work together to flesh out where you can make improvements, make a plan on how to change, and then execute on that plan.

Be Serious

This should go without saying, but it is possible to make attempts at implementing the above changes without really taking things seriously. If you want to succeed, in most cases, you can't do it completely on your own (if you can--great! I'm jealous!).  You can learn from those who manage you, those who have experience in your field, and those who have been tasked with developing you. You need to have levity when approaching the performance management topic, valuing it as a tool in itself and not just a means to getting your next raise. In the short term if you "game" the system you can get that incremental raise or look a bit better than your co-worker, but from a long-term perspective if you seriously want to grow, develop, mature, and achieve personal goals, you need to take performance management seriously and, as much as it may pain you, go through the full process being fully engaged.

At the end of the day, it's not your manager who decides your future, even though they may control your next bonus or promotion, it is in your own hands.  If you are fine with the way things are and think you're doing great, then this article wasn't really something you need, but if you want to aspire to improve and make performance management matter, I hope that I've been able to provide a little insight into some methods that could help. I can only speak from my personal experience, so take it how you will, but it's proven to be quite helpful in my current career trajectory up to this point.

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