Performance Reviews – Doing Them Effectively

Performance reviews are and need to be an integral part of what it means to work within an organization – for at least two reasons.  First, for accountability; that is, we do our work in a way that is demonstrably accountable to those who have given us the responsibilities that we hold – and hold in trust.  We have been given a duty or responsibility and whether we are volunteers or paid staff, we are accountable for the quality and character of our work.  The second reason is to foster learning and growth and enhanced competency.  Those who truly want to be effective welcome feed-back and input and critique . . . anything that can help to make a writer a better writer, a teacher a better teacher, an administrator a more effective manager and leader.  If we value excellence and truly want to do the best job possible, we will want and value a review of our work from those who can help us do it even better. 

And yet, it is equally important to stress that if a performance review is done poorly, it can do more harm than good.   And, further, than not everyone has the right or the prerogative to offer critique.   An evaluation needs to be located within a generative or constructive working relationship.   It needs to be framed within a context in which there are shared values and criteria by which and against which we are being evaluated.   There are few things more frustrating that being criticized for something over which one has no capacity or control or, ultimately, responsibility.   It can be quite disheartening.   We can only in be truly evaluated and have our work assessed when there are two things clearly in view:   the agreed upon criteria by which we will be assessed and, second, that we are assessed for that which is within our control or capacity to manage.

Thus a teacher is assessed in whether he or she is effective in the classroom or through an on-line teaching platform; but learning is always a two-way street.  Effective teaching/learning is always about a good teacher who engages learners who want to learn and know how to learn.  And yet, we can still evaluate whether the teacher framed the learning exercise effectively, encouraged learning and provide the appropriate level of both content and engagement with that content so that learning happened. 

A performance review can be very encouraging:   the feed-back from students in the classroom, from the board of trustees to whom one is accountable, can be positive, affirming and bolster our confidence and thus make us more effective in our work.   We hear words that foster our capacity to persevere through challenges and be open to new opportunities.  Everyone values affirmation – and rightly so.  We long to be effective in our work and thus appreciate that a performance review confirms that students are finding this course a valuable experience, that members of this church appreciate the work of their pastor, and that a board of trustees of a non-profit are pleased with the quality of the work of the management team. 

But, it can also be a humbling experience – hopefully not crushing, but nevertheless humbling.   We might learn through the process that we are not cut out for this task or responsibility.   We wanted to be a teacher or writer or administrator, but through this process learned that for all our hopes and aspirations, we really do not have the skill mix or competencies or dispositions for this role or occupation.   If this is an accurate read – and yes, it is possible that someone might conclude that we are not a good teacher when, in fact, their critique might be biased or one-sided . .. but if it is an accurate read – then it is a gift to us so that we turn and find our true calling or orientation.   Sooner better than later we learn that this role or responsibility is not for us.  But even if we are called to be a teacher, and we are relatively good at it, a negative assessment can still sting a bit.  Perhaps not, as I say, “crushing” but still a bit of a hit to our egos.    And yet, we must stress the following:  this humbling “hit” can be invaluable.  Perhaps the critique was not entirely fair or accurate or timely.   Perhaps.   But the main point is this:  when all we want is affirmation that strokes our egos, we can easily descend into narcissism where we only hear what we want to hear and, in the end, are not truly accountable for our work and not able to receive the feed-back that is essential to our capacity to grow, learn, improve and ultimately become more effective in the work to which we are called.

 In subsequent blog postings on performance reviews, I will speak to questions of criteria, timing and confidentiality.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.