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.