in Management

The worst performance review I ever had

The bad egg detector: How do they know?

 

Even before I opened the email, I knew it was bad news. Subject: year-end review.

“He needs to speak with you,” his assistant wrote. Though the deadline for reviews had passed months before, she seemed almost frantic, trying to schedule a call before the end of the week. He was in another city, and it was after 10pm there when he spoke to me on my mobile.

This is a true story. I write it not to solicit sympathy or embarrass anyone. Instead, my purpose is to show how management processes, however well-intended, have devolved into lotteries of a kind. Some win, most lose.

It was only years later that I learned I could change the game.

The set-up

In every firm I’ve worked in, there’s a similar process. You agree on objectives with your manager, review progress in the middle of the year, and get a formal review at the end of the year. To ensure the firm pays top performers and gets rid of low performers, the year-end ratings have to fit a curve. On the surface, it all seems reasonable, systematic, and fair.

In practice, though, behind all the spreadsheets and numbers, there’s an intensely human calculus. I’ve had years where I performed poorly but had powerful sponsors and got good reviews. It’s when your connection to your manager is weak, or the network you have isn’t powerful, that you’re at risk.

A friend compared this style of management to a wolf-pack, with leaders picking on the weak, allowing the other wolves to keep going, happy it wasn’t them who was sacrificed.

The conversation

I happened to be the weak one that year. The person I had been reporting to had left earlier in the year and our team’s fate was now uncertain. We used the word “exposed.” One colleague resigned right away. Referring to rats leaving a sinking ship, he told me “This rat can swim.” Others, like me, stayed on board.

The reason for the late-night review via telephone was that the next day was when our compensation would be announced. I presume someone needed to tick a box, perhaps afraid of a lawsuit. I imagine a person in HR exhorting managers “Did you communicate to all your poor performers?” I imagine she kept a list.

The conversation didn’t last long. He was earnest, saying he wanted me to succeed. But what was success? Was he even aware of what I did? How did my work compare to others? Why single me out this year and not others?

I never asked those questions. I never asked him about the objectives I was ostensibly being rated against. I knew it was pointless.

It was years ago, but I still remember hating the firm and the system. I remember feeling ashamed.

The lesson

Ironically, not many years after my bad review, it was my boss’ turn to be the weak one after he got a new manager. I wonder if he had a similar conversation, if he felt it was unfair.

It’s only now that I see the futility of taking it all so personally. My boss, my colleagues, and I were all trapped by processes that promoted internal competition, politicized the environment, and systematically propagated mediocrity and unfairness. It’s why PwC, a major consultancy regarding HR practices in large organizations wrote:

“There’s a growing school of thought that our traditional tools for managing employee performance are outdated and in need of a radical reboot.”

You could wait for firms to change their practices. Or you could work in such a way that you build a better network now, one that gives you access to people and possibilities without having to ask for permission from your boss.

If I get a poor review in the future, I won’t be angry and I certainly won’t be ashamed. I’ll acknowledge the setback, reach out to my network, and keep going. Never again will I cede the power over my career and my happiness to someone else. You don’t have to either.

The most surprising thing about this list of 25 “exceptional talents building today’s social businesses”

EIU 25 Social Business LeadersThis week, the Economist Intelligence Unit published a list and I was on it. That was one surprise.

I was also surprised at the range of contributions represented. There were people who founded companies, created famous social media campaigns, and even a few trying to change their firms from the inside, like me.

The most surprising thing for me, though, was who was missing.

Some of the most significant changes in social business

The list is made up of people “who are successfully applying social technologies, principles and strategies within organisations around the world.” At least 7 of the 25 people are involved with social media and marketing. But the range of contributions goes well beyond that.

“Social business is about much more than social media. A social business is an organisation whose culture and practices encourage networks of people—employees, partners, customers and others—to create business value, and, ultimately, increase revenue and profits.”

There are people on this list who are genuinely reshaping how we think about business.

  • Juliana Rotich is a co-founder of Ushahidi, “a not-for-profit digital platform that connects and gives a voice to communities facing social, political or medical duress in Kenya and beyond.”
  • Tony Hsieh founded Zappos, the online shoe company sold to Amazon for $1 billion, and created an iconic customer service culture.
  • Lin Bin founded Xiaomi, whose radical approach to openness helped the company become China’s third-largest smartphone maker in only four years.

The social media marketers are changing things too. Take a look at this video from TD Bank, where Wendy Arnott is head of social media and digital marketing: Sometimes you just want to say thank you #TDThanksYou. One of the commenters noted: “This is the first time a bank commercial had made me cry.” I watched it 3 times.

My accomplishments are much more modest than Juliana, Tony, or Lin and I’m not marketing to consumers around the world. But I do aspire to help millions of people find meaning and fulfillment at work, starting with the employees of a big German bank.

Why people I admire aren’t on the list

Changing any organization requires passion, persistence, and luck. When I started exploring social business ideas, I met people who were already changing their companies like I hoped to change mine. They were smart and innovative and years ahead of me. But they’re not on this list and that was my biggest surprise in seeing it. They shaped my thinking in so many ways but simply didn’t have some of the luck I had.

Their company/division/group was re-organized. 

Their sponsor left.

They were forced to change platforms, derailing their entire effort.

The experiments they tried didn’t work.

They got tired.

The truth is, if you’re trying to change how things work, you probably won’t. So many good people I know simply couldn’t continue on the path they started on. But I hope they try again. My friends involved in creating social businesses have the passion and capabilities to bring about great changes in the world, and we need them to persevere.

The next list

When I think of the challenges facing people trying to change complex, emergent systems like corporations, I think of Margaret Wheatley’s So Far From Home. She writes about persevering in the face of those challenges – not for the ultimate outcomes but for the goodness of the work itself, for the people involved, and for the chance, however slim, of ultimately creating a better future.

“We need to continue to persevere in our radical work, experimenting with how we can work and live together to evoke human creativity and caring. Only time will tell if our efforts contribute to a better future. We can’t know this, and we can’t base our work or find our motivation from expecting to change this world.”

There will be other lists in the future and I hope to see more of my friends on them. By then, I may have helped many more people or I may not appear on lists at all. All I know is I will have tried, and will keep trying.

How this one simple chart made me happier in 6 weeks

My first Happiness Resolutions chartJust six weeks. I’m still amazed.

I’d been actively trying to be happier for the better part of a decade – researching, experimenting, wanting. Yet it’s only recently that I found something that worked, something that’s simple, effective, and free. Now I want to tell everyone about it.

Here’s the story of my personal Happiness Project.

Happiness science

How of HappinessThere’s been a lot of research into what make people happy, particularly in the past two decades following the positive psychology movement. We now know some people have a genetic predisposition to be happier than others. Some simply have better circumstances, too. Yet, as Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky describes in The How of Happiness, there’s about 40% of our happiness that’s not explained by these factors. Even people with the exact same genes and circumstances would vary as to how happy they were.

The difference is in behavior – what we do and how we think. You might think that’s good news since we can control these things. But in fact most of what we do is unthinking.

In Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson writes that while our brains can take in eleven million pieces of information at any given moment, we’re only consciously aware of forty. It’s a dramatic statistic that shows just how little attention we have. It also shows us why change is so hard. Acquiring a new skill or behavior requires that we focus our precious attention over a period of time and, since attention is scarce, we have a natural aversion to expending it. As the neurologist Daniel Kahneman writes, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

How to change the 40%

The Happiness ProjectThis May, I started reading The Happiness Project in which Gretchen Rubin, a writer in NYC, chronicled her yearlong journey to become happier. Through her research and experiments on herself and her family (which are charming, funny, and easy to relate to), she came across her Splendid Truth: “I need to look at my life and think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”

The key, as the research showed, was to change her habits – what she did and how she thought. To do that, she borrowed an idea from Benjamin Franklin, who early on in his life identified 13 values he wanted to cultivate and would keep track of his progress every day. Gretchen felt that, more than anything, this made her happier.

“The single most effective step for me had been to keep my Resolutions Chart…By providing an opportunity for constant review and accountability, the Resolutions Chart kept me plugging away.”

My Happiness Project

This week's Happiness Resolutions chartI had discovered the power of charting my progress in writing the book and then as part of changing any habit. So I took a sheet of paper and listed things according to Gretchen’s Splendid Truth, resolving to do more of what made me feel good, less of what made me feel bad, more that made me feel right, and more that created an atmosphere of growth.

I added a few things as the first few weeks went by, and now my Resolutions Chart includes these things:

Feeling good

  • Friends/family – Time with extended family and friends I don’t often see.
  • 6-second hugs – Physical contact releases oxytocin, increasing bonding, trust, and feelings of happiness.

Feeling bad

  • No alcohol – Not abstinence but balance.
  • No anger – Eliminating overreactions to small irritations.
  • Admin – Getting little things done instead of procrastinating.
  • Honest Day’s Work – Putting in a solid effort at work.
  • No negative talk – Less sarcasm, snapping, or gossip.
  • No phone overuse – Limiting time spent checking things on my phone.

Feeling right

Atmosphere of growth

  • Book/Circles – Investing in my learning, network, and career opportunities.
  • Yoga/gym – Training my body to be healthier.
  • Meditation – Training my mind to be calmer and more focused.

Some things, like working on the book or with working out loud circles, are fulfilling and meaningful. Smaller things, like being on my phone less and taking care of administrative tasks, simply make me less irritable.

The results 

Every day, in the morning and the evening, I looked at my chart for a few minutes. There were no great epiphanies. No single one of these things made me happier.

What happened is I became mindful of my happiness. Put together, all the resolutions on my chart made for a powerful shift in what I did and how I thought. Instead of thinking of happiness as something I would find, it has become a state I am actively trying to create. In a few minutes each day, the chart reminds me of what I need to do to maintain balance in my life and, when I’m out of balance, what adjustments I might make the following day. I gradually became happier after a few weeks. By 6 weeks, it was clear this I might maintain a resolutions chart for the rest of my life, just like Ben Franklin.

The thing I learned was this: You shouldn’t wait for a happy life. By taking small steps towards it now and charting your progress, you can gradually build habits that can make each day a happier one.

 

“Holy ****. That is awesome.”

Working Out Loud CirclesThat’s a reaction from someone in one of our working out loud circles. It’s an unconventional testimonial, perhaps, but captures both the surprise and joy people feel when a circle member is successful in building a network, taking control of their career and their life.

Here’s the short story behind that reaction that demonstrates how circles work in practice.

We were in week 6

Circles usually form for 12 weeks and this was our sixth meeting. At the beginning of each meeting, before talking about a set of slightly more advanced techniques and exercises, we quickly recap the progress each person made with their plan from the week before. One woman described an event she attended and some of the influential people there who could help her grow her business. Our circle helped her choose the specific people she should add to her relationship list.

“What should I say?” she asked us, and we spent a few minutes suggesting ways to frame an email about the event as a contribution. We wanted her to start with appreciation but to also reference her own work in a way that would be helpful to the person receiving the note. It was a short practice in email empathy that Dale Carnegie would have approved of.

At the end of the circle meeting, we all described the steps we would take before the next session and encouraged each other to reach out if we needed help. Our friend said she would send that email.

“Oh my god. What now?”

Two days later, we all got forwarded an email with a short question from our friend: “Oh my god. What now?” The influential person she was nervous about reaching out to had already responded – thanking her for such a nice note, showing an interest in her work, and alluding to possible collaborations.

The people in our circle quickly offered suggestions for a reply, and the rest of the mail thread was a virtual high-fiving, celebrating our friend’s new connection. She sent the reply that day.

The really important thing that happened

Our friend has been working her lists for a few weeks now and has read a draft of the book. So she knows how to make her work visible, how to frame it as a contribution, how to build a network and be empathetic in her communications. But she still doesn’t have the habit of doing all of it.

So the important thing that happened this week wasn’t that our friend sent an email, made a connection with an influential person, or even that she created a possibility for collaboration where none existed before.

The important thing was that she practiced. She exercised the techniques she has learned so far, got positive reinforcement from both her network and our group, and is more prepared – and more likely – to take the next step and practice again. Gradually, she’s developing the habit of working in an open, generous, connected way.

The working out loud circle gives her emotional support, coaching, advice, and a sense of shared accountability that helps her develop her new habits. Over our remaining time together, as that habit grows stronger, she’ll be equipped to work out loud towards any goal.

How working out loud circles could transform your organization

There’s a growing chasm between what executives say they want for their organizations and the experience of their employees.

If you interview management at any large company, for example, they’ll talk about their desire for building an open, collaborative culture, the importance of being a learning organization, and the need to develop talent. Now talk to individuals working in that organization and you’ll discover a competitive environment, an inability to find even basic information, and a vast number of people who simply don’t care enough to get better at what they do.

It’s not that the executives are disingenuous. It’s just that the expensive, top-down change programs they roll out – for cultural change, collaboration, talent management – simply don’t work.

So here’s a different approach, one that’s employee-centered, self-organizing, and free.

How it would work

Working Out Loud CirclesI first described working out loud circles a few months ago. They’re groups of 4-5 people who meet over 12 weeks to help each other accomplish a personal goal by working out loud. Over that time, through actual practice, circle members learn specific ways to make their work visible, frame what they do as contributions, and build a richer, more purposeful social network.

Our experience with the first few circles has been extremely positive and that’s led to the idea of having entire organizations embrace them. To do that, here are the five most important things you would need to know about implementing circles in your organization:

  • Circles are employee-driven. It’s key that employees choose to participate, work on a goal that’s important to them, and trust that what happens inside the circle is confidential. If you impose manager approval or reporting requirements, you won’t realize the benefits.
  • Circles are open to anyone. Since circle members will be practicing basic 21st-century skills, access should not be restricted to only those with a certain title or those deemed to have potential. The most important criterion is the willingness to make an effort to learn.
  • Circles meet 12 times for one hour. These meetings could be outside normal business hours if necessary, depending on the organization. Individuals will also need to do work related to their goal in between meetings.
  • Instructions are provided in Circle Kits. The kits are concise guides for running each of the 12 meetings, including simple exercises complete with worksheets and examples.
  • All support for the circles is online and free. We’re developing a site that will host a rich FAQ and a range of other resources for developing specific skills. The site will also host stories and feedback from individuals and other circles.

How management could help

People could form circles outside of their company, of course. Between the Working Out Loud book due this September and the Circle Kits being released soon, independent groups would have the necessary resources to be successful.

But forming circles inside a company would have a number of advantages. The people there already have much in common, making it easier to form connections and even exchange their circle experiences. Also, if the organization uses an enterprise social network like Jive, Yammer, IBM Connections, Socialcast, Podio or similar offering, people will have a convenient platform to work out loud. Employees who work out loud at work are personally more effective, help the firm capture knowledge, and make it easier for others to access that knowledge.

While the circles are employee-centered and the resources I mentioned are free, there are still things that management could do to help. For example, by endorsing circles as an employee development offering or promoting them at employee networking events, they’d remove any doubts about whether employees are allowed to form them. They could provide time to participate in them, reducing possible interference from middle managers. They could motivate more people to participate by sharing stories of individuals and teams that are working out loud for their own benefit and that of the company.

The benefits: collaboration, learning, and engagement 

Working out loud combines the age-old principles for building meaningful relationships with the modern abilities to share your work, get feedback, and interact with others who share your interests. It wraps all of this in a mindset of generosity. You share and connect not to show off or create a personal brand but to genuinely help other people. If you were to describe someone who worked out loud, you might say she’s visible, connected, generous, curious, and purposeful.

The circles would help your employees to feel like that, to be like that. The practice over time and the peer support would enable people to finally break free of old ways of working and of thinking about work. They could finally develop new habits at work that tap into the intrinsic motivators of autonomy, purpose, mastery, and relatedness. Doing so in a visible way, together with the support of the firm, would accelerate the spread of these positive behaviors across the organization, changing the culture.

At a minimum, some circle members might learn to more readily search for people and content related to their work. Many will build a larger set of more meaningful relationships at work, enabling them to collaborate more effectively. Still others will feel, like Barbara from last week’s story, that “working out loud changed my life.” Combined, all that learning would fundamentally change how people relate to each other and to the organization.