Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

On The Difficulties of Career Feedback

The main reason I've been fairly quiet on the blog the last couple weeks is that I'm currently facing the full brunt of some new team management responsibilities at work. When I'm adjusting to new or larger responsibilities, I often find that (aside from having very little free time) I find it difficult to give much mental energy to anything else. Books sit unread, blog topics cease to come to mind, etc.

One of the things that's been keeping me particularly busy lately is preparing end-of-year performance reviews. Knowing how frustrating it can be to get a cursory written review from the manager you've only had for a couple months (which in this case, is me) I want to make sure that I give people thorough and fair feedback.

The process, however, brings up some basic contradictions in my deeply held assumptions and ways of dealing with people. In the employment sphere, I generally find myself assuming, "Most people are able to do well if they are given the opportunity (and appropriate guidance on what they're supposed to do and resources to do it with) if they apply themselves." And yet, in my personal interactions with people, I contradictorily assume, "It is generally not possible to change people, and causes unnecessary conflict to try."

Here's the problem (or as we say in corporate speak, challenge): For various reasons, certain types of skills and personalities are valued more than others. So, for instance, say that someone is the sort of person who is very good at routine. He is willing to come in day after day and do the same thing, and do it right. But he is not the sort of person who comes up with suggestions on how to change processes, or who will proactively go find things to do if he's not given tasks. Such a person can be valuable in certain slots, but unless he "develops" by becoming the sort of person who develops and implements new or improved businesses processes, shows initiative, etc., he will always get middling performance ratings, low raises, and will not be promoted.

So, do you provide such a person with feedback about how he needs to step up and be more innovative? Or do you just leave him alone? My social instincts tell me that you simply accept people as they are and work around any limitations or annoyances that may come with them. You don't address negatives, because that causes conflict. But implicit in the modern workplace is the idea that everyone can and should improve. And given that my own experience is that I am pretty successful in improving and innovating within any given role, if I write off people's ability to do this I'm implicitly saying, "I'm able to do the things which the company environment here values, but you're not." Which is not the sort of thing that "all people need is opportunity" types of people like me want to admit. It feels to much like saying, "You're not as good as me."

Not only can providing feedback about things people can't change (or may not be able to change) contradict one's deeply held assumptions, it can also cause significant personal pain. A couple years ago, when it was annual review time, I ran into a woman on another team who was close to tears after getting her annual performance feedback. One of the major pieces of feedback she's received from her manager essentially boiled down to, "A lot of the people on the team really don't like your personality. Please act differently." She didn't know what to do, and was deeply offended. And, of course, the most difficult thing about the whole situation was that the manager was right: she had a certain manic-kindergarten-teacher approach to doing things which was annoying and unprofessional. But what could you do? That's simply the way she was, and if people didn't like it they should have considered that when they hired her.


AnotherCoward said...

I loved doing end of year reviews for my engineers. It was my opportunity to highlight each individual's past accomplishments, areas of significant growth, and earmarking areas for growth to make them even more awesome. In short, I wanted my guys to be able to take over my job so that I could go on to do other and more awesome things. If you haven't checked him out yet, read up on Rand's thoughts on this stuff at For engineers, his insights are right on the money - but I suspect it applies far beyond engineers as well, he just does a particularly good job at giving the engineer's perspective.

Anonymous said...

I think your post highlights one of the more difficult long-term problems for the U.S. economy. As manufacturing jobs have decreased, jobs that involve providing various types of services (e.g. marketing analytics or accounting or legal services) have become the best route to middle to upper middle class income. At the same time, most of these jobs place a premium on a particular set of skills that generally involve a high degree of analytical intelligence and communication skills. But not everyone has those skills, and while people may have strenghts in other areas, increasingly the workplace values only that narrow range of skills.

Dorian Speed said...

I don't really know anything about providing feedback in a setting like that. Is it only written feedback that you give them, or do you have a face-to-face discussion? I can see how those would be treacherous waters to navigate. Could you ask them to identify what they considered areas for self-improvement, and get a sense of how aware they were of their own weaknesses?

Awkward, of course, if they considered their weaknesses (my chirpy voice before everyone's had coffee! my popping up over the wall of my cubicle to interrupt!) to be their strengths (my enthusiasm! my gregarious nature!)

I also cringe with self-recognition at the phrase, "manic kindergarten teacher."

Rebekka said...

Isn't it a crucial element of critical feedback to emphasize actions the person can take to improve, rather than undesirable qualities they may have a hard time changing? I mean, it's one thing to praise that someone is mature and responsible, but in the case of the manic kindergarten teacher (I cringed too), it's hard for her to know what to do with "you're annoying" - especially if that's not how she sees herself. In this case I'd think it would be the manager's job to say "we need to figure out how to help you communicate effectively".

Emily J. said...

This post reminds me of these "fit reps" my husband has to write in the military, where performance has little or no bearing on whether or not you get paid, unless you really make a huge mistake. Eventually you won't get promoted if you continually get bad fit reps, but because you change bosses so often, personality often has more to do with how your fit rep is written than how well you do your job. For the most part they seem an exercise in creative relabeling.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

I would generally frame feedback in a “career advancement” narrative: if you want to be given more responsibilities or higher raises, then you need to start doing x, y, and z.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, worse than having a boss/manager/employer/PI/whatever that refuses to give you feedback on how to improve... and then complains that you aren't doing your job well enough. I've been there.

Sitting in the position of not quite knowing what to do next is very uncomfortable. When I started my current job, I realized my boss just hired me because he had grant money for another research assistant, and didn't quite know what to do with me. So I was in the uncomfortable position of him having nothing for me to do, and me not knowing a lot of the lab techniques that would have allowed me to take initiative and be immediately useful.

So I think the threefold approach of praising what someone does well, telling them what you need them to improve, and offering some help starting.

I would have been stuck cataloging chemicals and doing ordering forever except one of the MDs took pity on me and taught me to isolate RNA and do RT-PCR.

Darwin said...

Lots of really interesting comments.

Just for context: I wrote this after I'd already taken the three day slog of writing feedback for everyone, which did indeed include constructive feedback for people. Some of this is fun and easy to write because I know that the person is willing and eager to work on things. The hard things to write involve problems that people have consistently denied they have. For instance, discussing the need for more diplomatic interactions with people on other teams with someone who insists that all conflict is always the other person's fault. (There's always fault to go around, but some people are better at dealing with it than others.) Or my favorite, noting the fact that someone is consistently resistant to receiving feedback. (No I'm not! I want to see you document that before I accept it.)

One of the things I've realized going from being a team lead to being an actual manager is that when your leadership is informal you mostly get to stick with the more fun parts of providing feedback -- now that I'm responsible for writing people's performance evaluations I have to work the difficult stuff to.

This may all be a exacerbated by the fact that I work in a marketing organization where there's a very strong up or out dynamic. So people are graded not so much on how well they do their current jobs, but how ready they are to move up to some other job with more responsibility. This is particularly hard on the people who are pretty good at their current jobs, but just aren't ready or able to move on to the job they aspire to next.

I've had a fair amount of experience doing the fun kind of career advice: "Here's how you can do what you're doing better or do something which provides more value to the business." This is the first time I've got stuck with what's seeming to me like the un-fun kind of feedback, "I know you really think you're ready for the next step, but here's what's holding you back" in cases where the employee has already consistently refused to admit there's a problem.

Anonymous said...

Other than the potential of losing one's job, part of the discomfort around this may be that Americans tend to equate their self-worth with their job evaluation. The stakes become high especially when tied to raises, which are the fuel necessary for consumerism. That said, I agree with the comment: "increasingly the workplace values only that narrow range of skills." You can change your self-image and standard of living, but it's a real problem if you're not a good fit for the today's workplace.

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Lenise said...

I don't usually click over from curmudgeonry, but your post title grabbed me. Let me start by saying I agree with your conflicting opinions about people. I am a case in point- on a large team, where I had teammates motivated and able to claim leadership roles, I wasn't about to start bucking for a limited management role (I'm an analyst). On a team of 4, where only one of my teammates is realistically interested in advancement to a management role (and he has an extremely adversarial attitude towards both management and our customers), I feel like I need to exercise some informal leadership, and have been approached for a second time now about taking on a more formal leadership role on the team.

I am really conflicted about it, since I am part-time (three youngsters at home), and I have a couple of teammates who aggressively deny their weaknesses. At the same time, I understand why my management has been encouraging me to take on the role. I strongly believe my co-worker who wants the team lead position would unintentionally sabotage all of us if he is made team lead, and just might intentionally sabotage me/us if I am promoted. Being part-time (even though I put in extra unpaid hours when necessary) doesn't earn me any good will (which I understand, but will not soon change). *Sigh*

Anyway, I appreciated your thoughtful post!

AB said...

I was an engineering supervisor for a few years before 'retiring' to be home with kids and I remember what a big step it was for me to go from being able to complain about coworkers without any responsibility to help them improve to it being my responsibility to help them. I was actually given an 'atta boy' from the chief engineer when I decided to cut loose a woman I had hired who just wasn't catching on (none of my colleagues ever had the guts to do that and it always bugged me). I'm with you, you have to decide which traits you can help them change and which traits they are incapable of changing (like personality) and help them move on to another part of the organization or out of the organization if they aren't going to make your team the best it could be. It does them a favor even if they don't think so at the time.

Right now, I am trying to figure out how to talk to an 8th grade teacher, who does not do any one thing that is 'wrong' but is nit picking my son to death. I want to say "They are 13 year old kids, lighten up!'". I'm taking my time forming my thoughts so as to be as Christian as possible and yet encourage change. How much is her personality that is not going to change??

Suburbanbanshee said...

I resemble that remark. But actually, I get pretty good evaluations, because I do good fast work. It's just that I always get downgraded on development plans and such. But I'm okay with that, because it's fair. I don't work on my development plan, because I can't really think of any goals or dreams. I don't have any goals beyond going to work, and whatever non-work projects I have going at home.

I've been known to think up new processes, but I can't be bothered writing them up, honestly. I just tell the people who can use them, and do it myself, and that's all that's needed. Most of the "extra" stuff I do, I forget about by the time I get reviewed, anyway. A lot of it never occurs to me to mention, like translating stuff in Spanish or being the team's web guru back in the day. It just seems either silly or immoral to make a big deal of that stuff, especially since I'm paid enough for all my needs and don't want to get promoted. (All the higher jobs mean you have to call people on the phone all the time, which I dislike.)

What I can remember at review time is every mistake I've ever made.

Which brings us to the horror of self-evaluation. I don't think I'll ever persuade anybody that I'd rather walk through a bonfire than allow my inner critic to tell me what it really thinks of myself and my performance, but it's not really nice for productivity to stare dumbly at the form while having suicidal thoughts. If I can just fill out the form with something generic while not thinking about it, that's about as good as it gets.

I know this all distresses my supervisors. But there's not really anything they can do about it, and there's not really anything I can do about it. My depression isn't caused by work, and the routine is exactly what's good for it. Whatever people assign me to do, I do it, and it works out. But evaluations are always going to be exactly the same, unless I kill myself instead, or become more efficient at getting past the suicidal depression to fill out the form intelligently.

This is exactly the kind of stuff you can't put on the forms, of course. :)