The idea for today’s off-topic note came to me when I read "Microsoft's Lost Decade", an aptly titled Vanity Fair story. In the piece, Kurt Eichenwald tracks Microsoft’s decline as he revisits a decade of technical missteps and bad business decisions. Predictably, the piece has generated strong retorts from Microsoft's Ministry of Truth and from Ballmer himself (“It’s not been a lost decade for me!” he barked from the tumbrel).
But I don’t come to bury Caesar -- not, yet, I’ll wait until actual numbers for Windows 8 and the Surface tablets emerge. Instead, let’s consider the centerpiece of Eichenwald’s article, his depiction of the cultural degeneracy and intramural paranoia that comes of a badly implemented performance review system.
Performance assessments are, of course, an important aspect of a healthy company. In order to maintain fighting weight, an organization must honestly assay its employees’ contributions and cull the dead wood. This is tournament play, after all, and the coach must "release" players who can't help get the team to the finals.
But Microsoft’s implementation -- “stack ranking”, a bell curve that pits employees and groups against one another like rats in a cage -- plunged the company into internecine fights, horse trading, and backstabbing.
...every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor...For that reason, executives said, a lot of Microsoft superstars did everything they could to avoid working alongside other top-notch developers, out of fear that they would be hurt in the rankings.
Employees quickly realized that it was more important to focus on organization politics than actual performance:
Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees.
This brought back bad memories of my corpocrat days working for a noted Valley company. When I landed here in 1985, I was dismayed by the pervasive presence of Human Resources, an éminence grise that cast a shadow across the entire organization. Humor being the courtesy of despair, engineers referred to HR as the KGB or, for a more literary reference, the Bene Gesserit, monikers that knowingly imputed an efficiency to a department that offered anything but. Granted, there was no bell curve grading, no obligation to sacrifice the bottom 5%, but the politics were stifling nonetheless, the review process a painful charade.
In memory of those shenanigans, I've come up with a possible antidote to manipulative reviews, an attempt to deal honestly and pleasantly with the imperfections of life at work. (Someday I'll write a Note about an equally important task: How to let go of people with decency -- and without lawyers.)
A review must start with three key ingredients, in this order:
- First: Because your performance meets/exceeds requirements, we'll renew our vows, our work relationship will continue.
- Second: Here are your new numbers: salary, bonus, stock.
- Third: We're sufficiently happy with your performance as it stands today, so feel free to disregard the observations and suggestions for improvement I'm about to make. Now let’s talk...
This might sound a little too "different" (that's Californian for “batty”), but there’s a serious purpose, here. We’ve all been reviewed, we all know the anxiety -- and sometimes the resentment -- that precedes the event. Mealy-mouthed comments about team-spirit, loyalty, how the company cares for its people and other insufferable HR pablum only makes things worse. You tune out, you can only hear the noises in your own head: Am I being led to the exit? Am I being shafted out of a raise/bonus/stock? Am I supposed to think that loyalty is its own -- and only -- reward?
To be heard, the reviewer must silence these questions. Hence the preamble: Your job is safe; here are the $$; we like what you do enough that you can safely continue to behave in the manner we have come to expect, no need to course-correct.
There follows a pause to let the news sink in. Anxiety quelled, the reviewee is now prepared -- and willing -- to listen.
On to the observations and suggestions. It's probably a good idea to start with the minus side of the ledger -- this isn't much different from a sales pitch: Get the product's negatives out of the way first. Stick to specific comments about goals missed, undesirable habits, and the like. “When you arrive 20 minutes late at our staff meetings, you’re being disrespectful to your colleagues, including me.” Defensive reactions to the negative part of a review are unavoidable, so you sing the refrain: The objectionable behavior, while imperfect, doesn’t jeopardize your job.
(As an aside, and seriously: Objecting to a behavior that you insist will be tolerated because of the overall goodness of the relationship...this approach works wonders outside of work. It's a lot more constructive than the comminatory “You must stop doing this”, which invites the sarcastic and unhelpful response: “And if I don't? What? You'll divorce me?”)
The review can now proceed to the positive, to praising the individual's performance and giving thanks. Saccharine is to be avoided, examples are a must, and exaggeration is only welcome in moderate doses.
Finally, ask for feedback... but don't kid yourself: Hierarchy trumps honesty, so you may have to ask twice. Explain that you understand the challenge in giving feedback to the reviewer. You might get some useful tidbits, especially if they sting a bit.
Back in the real world, this simple, direct approach might not fit a large organization where you need to protect the rest of the team from the demoralization of a metastasized employee. The habitual backstabber, the knee-jerk naysayer, the self-appointed “Fellow” must be excised before too much harm is done. It’s a difficult task that requires a degree of human judgment and courage that’s not afforded by a mechanical ranking system.
Next week, we might return to topics such as Apple's uneasy relationship with file systems, Android tablets and phablets, or some such tech disquisition.