Of course, on the weekend I have to write my annual self-evaluation essay for work, I read this article in the Wall Street Journal by Marcus Buckhingham. He spells out the problems with the annual review process:

The failings of the annual performance review fall into three broad buckets:

They are too infrequent. They are dehumanizing. They are irrelevant to real-world performance.

For years I have complained to my “performance advisors” about the absurdity of the annual review process. Part of the problem is that goals—even SMART goals—are often unachievable because priorities, projects, and clients change over time. Another problem is that too much time is spent ranking employees, which leads to an outside focus on areas of improvement. Not enough time is spent highlighting areas of strength. Imagine how empowering a performance review would be if it was focused on what employees are good at and on finding ways to let them do those things even more.

I thought this detail, from deep in the article, was especially well-observed:

Workers want attention, not feedback, and mostly attention on where they’ve shown glimpses of something good, and how they might show more of them.

Over the past two years I have cultivated a much better attitude about performance reviews. I believe that the managers at the various companies I have worked at want to do the right thing with performance reviews, and are doing the best they can with the tools they have available. I think the problem is that the wrong tools are being used—and have been being used, for my whole career, at every place I worked. The reason for that is that how performance reviews are performed has been baked into general workplace culture. It’s pretty much the same everywhere; blame the MBAs and management experts who developed the general processes and the ideas behind them, I guess1. No annual review process I have been a part of tries to break out of that mold and define a new culture.

In general, employers should help their employees develop their strengths and allow them to spend more time on them. It’s true that various weaknesses can and should be improved with training, coaching, and experience. In many cases, however, greater gains can be had in letting employees drop those areas of weakness and concentrate instead on further developing their areas of strength. That approach would develop the kind of employees that companies in my field want to hire: specialists with unique, world-class skills. In the market for workers, that’s what’s valuable. Why strive hard to become average in your areas of weakness when you could spend equal effort to become truly great at something?

  1. I’m an MBA with a concentration in management. Maybe I’m part of the problem. ↩︎