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For decades I’ve wondered why employers continue to “rate and rank” their employees. That approach is broken; has been for along time. That approach does little to develop or inspire employees. And, supervisors dread “review time.”
Over the years in focus groups conducted with employees, I was told time and time again all the reasons why a better process is required. And, that process is performance feedback. A two-way discussion of prior accomplishments and future contributions. An employee-driven process that serves to enhance the employee’s experience with the organization. It’s a process, not an annual event driven by a personnel form.
During my work to change how employers view performance review, my perspective was crystalized by an article I found written in 1982 – yes, 1982 – by Jack Engelhard called The Company Man, published in The New York Times. Read on to understand why you need to “stop the madness” and change your process now.
This article was reprinted with permission from the author.
The Company Man
I work for a big company. I’m small. I’m much smaller than the company. My boss told me so himself. He said, “The company is much bigger than you.”
I work out of a cell. The company calls it an office but to me it’s a cell. There are no padlocks on the door, except those that I see in my mind. I could escape, but to where? Another corporation? That’s all there is. I’m a company man.
I do everything that I’m supposed to do, 8 hours a day, 12 months a year. I get weekends off for good behavior. I get paid once every week, whether I need the money or not.
I don’t make trouble. I play second base on the company softball team. I attend company picnics and parties and laugh when I’m supposed to. I don’t sexually harass female colleagues – it’s against company policy.
But this is a bad time of year. It’s review time. That means I have to go before my boss and have him evaluate me. This goes on, I’m told, all over the country. People like me get reviewed.
That’s part of being a company man.
I’m tired of getting reviewed. All through school I got reviewed. Before I got married my wife reviewed me. She still reviews me. Everybody – even the bus driver – reviews me. I thought when I grew up I could relax, be myself. No such luck.
America was once the land of the rugged individualist. Now it’s the land of small corporate man. Would Daniel Boone have stood for having his boss question his appearance, his cooperativeness, his initiative, his creativity, his productivity? Never.
But that was long ago, when Daniel Boone was big. People were big. Now, people are small. The corporation is big.
The man who occupies the cell next to mine is small. The other day, he was smaller. He’s a good company man. He uses words like “interface” and “input.” But the other day he passed by my office in a daze, as if he’d just been smashed by a demolition ball.
“That man,” I said to myself, “just got reviewed.”
Sure enough, he had.
He got a “fair” on appearance and cooperativeness, an “average” on initiative and productivity. “I didn’t get one ‘outstanding,’” he said.
He didn’t show up the next day. I think he was home crying. I think he’s destroyed.
Two days ago, I got reviewed.
“Let’s interface,” said my boss.
My boss is small, but I’m smaller. He’s a good man, my boss. I’m also a good man.
“You’re a good man,” he said, and he put a check next to “good.” Not “outstanding.”
Well, I said to myself, so I’m not an “outstanding” man. Who is? But I’m punctual.
“Yes, you are,” my boss said, and he checked off “above-average” for “punctuality.”
But do I comb my hair nicely, wear trim, dark suits, my tie in a corporate knot?
“I don’t know,” said my boss, mulling me over. “Your hair is kind of long. Your shoes could use a shine.”
I got an “average” for “appearance.” That didn’t hurt because back in the days when I was a rugged individualist I used to be downright “slovenly.” I prided myself in being a “slob” and in slurring my words like Marlon Brando.
“You know,” my boss said, “you slur your words like Marlon Brando.”
So I got a “poor” for “speech.”
All right, but despite these drawbacks, these flaws of character, I do “get along with people.”
“You don’t ‘get along with people’ do you?” my boss said.
That was a slap in the face.
“Who don’t I get along with?” I asked.
“You’re a loner.”
Yes, I am. I got a “poor” in “cooperativeness.”
It was downhill from there. I didn’t get one “outstanding.” Not for “initiative.” Not for “creativity.” Not for “productivity.” Funny, I used to think I was creative and productive. I even used to think of myself as cooperative and attractive. All I am, it turns out, is “punctual.”
I didn’t show up for work today. I’m home. Should I go on living? My wife says yes. She thinks I’m at least average. She thinks I ought to go back to work and tell him off, my boss. I can’t do that, of course – and that’s no way to get even. What I’m going to do tomorrow is review my secretary. I’m small. But I’m bigger than she is.
For more information on Jack Engelhard click here
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What makes a boss great? It’s a question I’ve been researching for a while now. In June 2009, I offered some analysis in HBR on the subject, and more recently I’ve been hard at work on a book called Good Boss, Bad Boss (published in September by Business Plus).
Here they are, presented as a neat dozen:
- I have a flawed and incomplete understanding of what it feels like to work for me.
- My success — and that of my people — depends largely on being the master of obvious and mundane things, not on magical, obscure, or breakthrough ideas or methods.
- Having ambitious and well-defined goals is important, but it is useless to think about them much. My job is to focus on the small wins that enable my people to make a little progress every day.
- One of the most important, and most difficult, parts of my job is to strike the delicate balance between being too assertive and not assertive enough.
- My job is to serve as a human shield, to protect my people from external intrusions, distractions, and idiocy of every stripe — and to avoid imposing my own idiocy on them as well.
- I strive to be confident enough to convince people that I am in charge, but humble enough to realize that I am often going to be wrong.
- I aim to fight as if I am right, and listen as if I am wrong — and to teach my people to do the same thing.
- One of the best tests of my leadership — and my organization — is “what happens after people make a mistake?”
- Innovation is crucial to every team and organization. So my job is to encourage my people to generate and test all kinds of new ideas. But it is also my job to help them kill off all the bad ideas we generate, and most of the good ideas, too.
- Bad is stronger than good. It is more important to eliminate the negative than to accentuate the positive.
- How I do things is as important as what I do.
- Because I wield power over others, I am at great risk of acting like an insensitive jerk — and not realizing it.