The tyranny of reviews

Of all the people that you spend time with during the work day, I'll bet that your manager is not the person that best knows your work.

I'm betting that it is a colleague with whom you collaborate frequently. The people on my best work teams interacted with me and with each other daily, often several times a day.

But there are other possibilities:

  • Perhaps it is a customer or a client that knows your work the best. I know for large parts of my career, I spent many days onsite with my customers. I may have only seen my manager for an hour or two a month.
  • Alternative work arrangements might also mean that the manager you report to on the organization chart isn't the leader you work with regularly. You might be assigned to another team for a special assignment for weeks or months. You might have been "attached" to a team for convenience, but your real work is done with teams outside your formal reporting structure.
  • In some cases, your workload is split. You might report to one leader, but work with another leader on a project in a completely different part of the organization.
  • You might be part of a matrix organization, where part of your responsibilities are led by one leader and part by another. I worked in a matrix model for many years – sometimes with four people in the matrix (brand, country, role, division).  
  • Or maybe there is some other arrangement. I have encountered many different models, both in my own reporting structure as well as with the people who were part of my teams on the organization chart. Upon reflection, most of my worklife has been part of some kind of hybrid team!

So, when we get to the end of the periodic review period, whenever that might be, why is it that your review is with a person who doesn't really know your work all that well?

If you are a leader who has to do all of these reviews, how do you feel about your true ability to rate and rank and give feedback to the people on your team? Do you make a judgement about a person's contribution based on your own limited interactions? Do you have some kind of "objective" metric that you use that is fair and free from bias? (That will have to be another posting someday.)  

My best managers over my career took a lot of time and effort to collect feedback from the people I worked with regularly. They didn't just go with their own personal views and observations, but instead collected real feedback from the people that knew me best. Those managers gave me a more complete picture of how well I did during a performance period.

Even then, I know that the system didn't work well.  One time, a colleague who I worked with on an occasional basis didn't get an answer from me in a timely way on one note during that review year.  That feedback came back to my manager through an email survey. It was a data point, but it was only a single data point. (Honestly, feedback from colleagues can be as spotty and one-dimensional as a manager's feedback.) At least in my case, my manager got feedback from several different people and did some work to try to get a better, aggregated picture.

Is there a better way? I'll suggest that there are several ways to improve this process. But you can start by replacing the assumption that you, as the manager, are the one that knows best about the work of the people on your team.

Instead, the first step is to do this: for every person where you have the responsibility to complete a year-end review process, make sure you start and maintain a list of people that you will work with to gather reviews and feedback for that person. I like to think of it as that person's "mini-Board-of-Directors."  The CEO doesn't just report to one person, she reports to the Board. It should be the same for everyone on your team.

I've never seen any of the widely-used HR applications that use this premise; they all assume one manager per employee. (Please correct me if you know of one!) But for the best in 21st century leadership, you'll want to figure out a way to manually implement this for you and your team.

I'd also like to hear from you: what are the best ways you've seen to give the best overall feedback to a person on a team?  I'll offer another post to discuss ideas to improve this often painful process in the future.  

Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn is a teacher and student of leadership.
Madison, Wisconsin, USA