Performance Reviews: competencies

Book coverI found this article by Professor Samuel Culbert some time ago and ended up buying his book (on which the article is based).

As a manager, I’ve recently had to use HR’s latest attempt at a performance review approach on some of my staff and am preparing for my overdue review with my own manager. This article is me getting out of my system (hopefully) my negativity about the process.

So we have a set of competencies. We’re supposed to show how we’re living up to these at the required level. Let me just say it: it’s a vague bunch of nonsense which for the most part would be next to impossible to objectively agree that I’ve lived up to. So, as Professor Culbert notes in the article and his book, the review is going to be subjective.

Let’s pick out some of the gems and have some fun!

“Create partnerships and an environment where ideas are encouraged and valued, and support for plans is achieved.”

Did I mention that my employer is “Utopia Inc”? This is like a new years’ resolution – made with the best intentions but frequently not achieved due to the fact that this is not an ideal world. Of course I try to encourage ideas but as a middle manager a) not many people below me have good ideas due to their level or even lack of interest and b) senior management don’t have the time or detailed knowledge to assess/action ideas but won’t empower middle managers to drive change directly.

There’s a bigger issue with encouraging ideas though. Unfortunately, an idea often introduces the notion that existing practice is flawed. Try telling your boss that he could run his business better. For that matter, try telling anyone above you how to do his/her job. Prof. Culbert talks in his book about the lack of honest feedback which the performance review fosters.

“Progress business goals while retaining good relationships.”

I find I can do both, but quite often not at the same time. As managers generally do not reinforce (or are not given detailed awareness of) goals and don’t network among themselves, they end up working in silos and diverging away from common goals and end up at odds with one another. Working in such an atmosphere, staff (including the lower managers) cannot progress business goals. The two sides of this statement are therefore often at odds.

I had a case recently where another manager (“A”) decided to change something that he felt would progress a business goal. However, “A” didn’t consult with other managers whose own business goals with the same root were put at risk. Interestingly, some would share in the benefit from the actions of “A”, although in my case there was going to be a cost both monetary and in terms of ongoing staff time. Long story short: I have not retained a good relationship with “A”. (And “A” has thrown the performance review competencies in my face in response to my honest feedback, despite his own contrary behavior – also see next heading.)

“Don’t push decisions through without buy-in.”

The problem with this one is that people just don’t want to buy in, often without any valid reason. They resist change and don’t want their job to get harder (normally because they weren’t doing it right before). Even when you show them a change will make life easier they don’t always buy in. People are swallowed up by fear of the unknown.

Working in finance, decisions often have to be imposed on, rather than agreed with, the rest of the company. Considerable effort is put into accommodating business needs and providing practical solutions to achieve buy-in, but sometimes we all have to bear the pain.

“Listen to others.”

I try, I really do. The problem is, they often talk such crap! Okay, let’s not call it crap. Let’s call it ‘irrelevance’. I seem to be mainly surrounded by people who like the sound of their own voice but don’t really have much of a contribution.

One of my pet hates linked to this is people who interrupt when you are speaking. What I hate even more is that I let them do this. I’ll confess though that I do sometimes interrupt others, linked to them quoting irrelevant information or background you already know.

“There’s a time for talk and a time for action. So you shut up while I walk out!” :O

“Be a role model for staff by demonstrating expected standards.”

What? Well clearly I make every effort to cover that. That’s my subjective opinion anyway. The ‘expected standards’ are what I decide, as it’s not particularly clear what standard the company expects. So I apply my personal standard to be as good as you can without losing your mind (completely).

“Ensure meetings are focused on outcomes.”

I assume this is only for meetings I organize/request, as I don’t think I can be blamed for the focus of meetings called by others. I tend to decline or ask for clarity when a meeting is requested by someone else (unless I’m already fully aware of the issues and agree a meeting would be productive).

Meetings here are normally because you’ve already told someone ‘no’ (and explained why, after considering their argument) and they are hoping that face-to-face they can cajole/bully you into doing what they want.

“Don’t disrespect colleagues.”

This amuses me. It’s all-encompassing, so I can’t even have a disrespectful thought? Also, what is disrespect? It’s not disrespectful to criticise someone if you have valid (although possibly subjective) reasons for doing so. I’d prefer “Criticism should be constructive and delivered tactfully with empathy.” Prof. Culbert reflects this in his book.

“Ensure adequate planning and timely delivery.”

The only reason I fail to plan adequately or deliver on time is because I’m overloaded. If I stop to plan, even more will get delivered late. It’s a noble aim, but requires realism from those setting targets.

“Lead on resolving conflict when necessary.”

Yes, sometimes people need their heads banging together, but I need to do that while retaining good relationships and without disrespecting those involved. Did I mention that people rarely get fired in this place? (That’s why I’m still here.)

“Never say ‘That’s not my job’.”

If I never said that, half the people here would be out of one. I often do things that aren’t my job. People see me as a knowledgeable guy, and I do like to put that knowledge to good use by helping others. But I don’t have time to do all I can – to do so I would risk ‘timely delivery’ of my actual job. I’d prefer something like “Be prepared to go the extra mile”.

Migraines and memories

My wife probably already thinks I’m crazy. So, when I stopped taking my medication, I started hiding things from her. This is not without good reason as I complained about stomach pains at the end of December and her first thought was the medication, not the effect of Christmas, or Excessmas as I think it should perhaps be called.

Driving to work
This only happened once, in early January, on a morning when I was somewhat consumed by anger over a not-insignificant problem. (Basically, someone broke a door. It was probably due to break, and if I’d broken it myself I would still have been a bit mad. But someone else broke it.)

Anyhow. I think I was driving with due care and attention. The point is, I realised that I had passed my turn at a junction. I just didn’t change lanes to make the turn, didn’t notice a thing. I was in automatic. Less than 30 seconds after the junction I recognised where I was.

Following any required u-turns(!) I finally arrive at work and an immense and sprawling public car park. The earlier you arrive, the closer to the office you get to park. My arrival times are somewhat erratic (even without accidental detours) so each day when I finish work I have to remember where my car is. This has not been a problem until lately – several times I’ve walked past my car towards the far end of the parking area. This is either because I think I parked that far away (I probably did the day before) or because I’m not thinking at all. The latter is a bit like the driving incident, I guess – I’m distracted by something.

I am a most fortunate migraine sufferer, as I don’t get the headache part. This is a relief as all accounts I’ve heard of migraine headaches convince me that it would be unbearable to someone of such a weak disposition as I. (And I would be unbearable too.)

My migraine is visual only – an ‘aura’ that I don’t think has ever lasted more than an hour, even when untreated. I had my first one under medication, and my latest one a few weeks after stopping the medication. My optometrist confirmed that my eyes are fine and suggested the migraine diagnosis, and my nodding-doctor agreed.

The treatment, by the way, is rest. Specifically I need to drag my eyes away from screens and other sources of brightness. Even adjusting screen brightness and contrast isn’t enough.

Rest isn’t always feasible. On the latest occurrence I really needed to get an email out. Typing with everything feeling swimmy and out of focus is not something I would recommend. Next time this happens I hope I remember that I then drove home still feeling some of the effects, which probably would not have been the case if I’d rested.

Distractions are getting to me in all situations (eg My inbox will not be the boss of me!). I admit I often distract myself, or make excuses not to just get on with it! Maybe that’s why I often feel that nothing ever gets done.

Resolutions or revolution?

So on reading this very wise article, I thought I’d set wisdom aside and come up with my own list.

  1. Be less like my father
  2. Fix my relationship
  3. Get a doctor’s finger up my ass
  4. Organize myself better at work
  5. Get therapy
  6. Take more prescription drugs
  7. Exercise more
  8. Generally fix myself
  9. Read more
  10. Write more
  11. Finish watching “Angel”

Be less like my father

Just to be clear here, my father is an a**hole. And I am very much like him – shall we say it’s my default setting. Whether through being around him growing up, or pure genetics, I have a very low tolerance for imperfection, including my own. I need to learn to chill and be less of a perfectionist.

Fix my relationship

Assuming it can/should be fixed – clearly the point above is a key part of this. I’m not sure I would want to try the fix if not for my kid.

Get a doctor’s finger up my ass

This is not something I want, but need to do for my health. There’s a possibility that issues in that ‘area’ are impacting my libido and so can help with the previous point. And I somehow know that my doctor will want to get his finger out for me before he does anything else.

Read more here.

Organize myself better at work

It’s easy for me to get overwhelmed by competing demands. I delegate but need to do that more, prioritize and use tools to help make sure important things don’t get forgotten.

I’ve done some work on this already.

Get therapy

This is achievable as I’ve already committed to a therapist. I’m not sure if therapy will work for me, but I need to give it a good try for the sake of my family.

Take more prescription drugs

I’m not rattling yet. This is a joke, really, as I’d rather take nothing at all. While what I’ve been taking has been relatively small doses, it’s done nothing for me. I should consult my doctor and follow his advice. I should, but I’ve actually stopped seeing him even though I’ve run out of medication. Very unhelpfully, my beloved suggested my stomach pains yesterday could be withdrawal. Probably she’d also link my lightheadedness today to my undrugged state. It certainly can’t be anything to do with the holidays (altered diet, general over-indulgence in food and alcohol, late nights) now can it? Of course, if it is the drugs, that’s just another reason for me to stop using.

Exercise more

They say a sedentary lifestyle contributes to depression. While I don’t see it, I do need to shed some weight and I realize I’ll feel better about myself if I’m fitter.

Generally fix myself

While the preceding points are the headlines, there’s more detail to be thrashed out. One More Knight is on a mission to be nice to people, but he is not a blazing success. In fact, best intentions have backfired on me. That’s a story for another day, perhaps.

Read more

I don’t read much but do enjoy fiction, which takes me to another place and is arguably better than just staring at the TV. I also have some non-fiction which can be educational or can generally widen my horizons. There’s also lots of interesting stuff online and I tend to add stuff to Pocket faster than I read it.

Write more

I’ve found writing a good way of expelling things that otherwise roll around in my head and can keep me awake at night or distract me from what I’m supposed to be doing.

Some of those things I expel can be published as interesting blogs. Others cannot.

Finish watching “Angel”

Okay, so I’ve got to have an easy one, right? Only three seasons left, although I’m also watching the last two seasons of Buffy.

My inbox will not be the boss of me!

Email is used too much where I work. I’m guilty of over-use myself (hypocrite alert).

Remember before email: there was just ‘mail’. How quaint. It came in the morning and perhaps in the afternoon too. Businesses used memos for internal communication (which often arrived with the mail), but for daily internal dealings the tool used was ‘speech’.

So here are a few of my personal gripes with email.

The ‘water cooler’ effect
Ever get pulled into a conversation that doesn’t interest you? Copying me on an email is ok if:

  • you already spoke to me about the subject and I agreed to be party to the conversation; or
  • there’s a note in there specifically addressed to me (as long as it’s correctly addressed to me).

It is NOT ok if:

  • you’re just adding my name for credibility without even knowing whether I would back you up; or
  • there’s no apparent reason, so I am left confused as to what I am missing.

“Did you see that email I copied you in on?”
“Yes, but WHY!!!”

For your irritation
What about the long email chain you suddenly get forwarded sometimes with only an “FYI” from the sender. Or maybe they want your opinion but haven’t summarized the issues and don’t even refer to a specific email in the chain or highlight key phrases.

I don’t mind so much if it’s an “FYI as discussed” assuming that discussion included me agreeing that I need to read your story.

I would argue that there’s no such thing as an urgent email as a standalone communication anymore, because our inboxes are flooded with such a variety of messages that we can no longer tell shit from Shinola without combing through the shit first.

An urgent requirement might be best explained in writing, and email equals instant delivery, but any urgent matter requires direct verbal contact too. You seriously don’t think that I’m sitting around just waiting for emails to drop into my inbox?  Emails do not necessarily have the same immediacy as an old-fashioned memo. Talk to me.

Thanks, but no thanks
A personal email that just says ‘thanks’ is nice if you’ve really put yourself out for that person (and they know it), but a little superfluous when you’re just doing your job.


Actual compliments are, of course, happily accepted.

(Thanks to Jay Lebo for his excellent tweet.)

My solutions

Email rules are quite handy – many circulars (internal and external) are automatically deleted without ever reaching my eye. As are the automatic “Thank you for your email” responses which confirm nothing except that the email server is functioning. (I think some of my colleagues might believe it’s a real person sending that email, and their email is already being actioned.)

I’m not here
Typically, only your first email gets a standard out of office response, allowing you to forget I’m not here and get upset that your later emails don’t produce any response.

I’ve used rules to send an out of office auto-reply every time you email me. This can annoy the sender, the solution being: STOP SENDING ME EMAILS!!!

The auto-reply is also a handy tool to tell people you are just too busy to answer emails, and suggest where else to send them. I have a team mailbox.

And finally, don’t forget that any auto-reply should suggest the sender recalls their email and sends it to [insert name]. I refer people to my team mailbox.

FIFI – file it, forget it
The best place to ‘file’ something you intend to forget… can you guess? Your computer has a FIFI button, although it’s actually labelled “Delete”.

This method is a fallback for those random emails you just cannot predict via rules.

Get somebody else to answer it
I will do this when I get personally emailed about something that could be dealt with by my team. I’m not convinced though that many people pick up on this, but combining it with the next method means they may get slower service by emailing me personally.

5-6-7-8, always pays to make ’em wait
How often do you check your email? I became an email slave, obsessively checking many different email boxes for new email at the expense of whatever I was supposed to be working on.

I’m working on resolving my obsession. I have an alarm on my phone reminding me to check my email every two hours. This is not because I might forget, but as part of a process of “I will not look at my email until the alarm sounds”. It’s early days. To help me not look at all the incoming emails, they are filtered away to a sub-folder of my inbox by a rule. Another rule leaves emails in my inbox if I’ve hidden a secret code in the body – so I can focus on the emails I want to see without getting distracted by every other email.

The two hour reminder is a trial – I’m hoping to increase this time to get back to the idea of morning and afternoon mail.

Won’t you join me in deliberately not checking email constantly? My hope is that once people realize that their emails don’t produce a quick reaction, they will stop sending them and make a quick call instead. I’m hoping for a call one day from someone saying “Did you read the email I sent you three hours ago?” so I can say “Sorry, I don’t constantly monitor my email, but I’ll be checking again in the morning, and will get back to you then.”