The following are approximately the first 1000 words from Chapter 2 of Jonar Nader’s book, How to Lose Friends and Infuriate Your Boss.
Have you been naughty or nice?
From performance appraisal to staff reprisal
Performance appraisals affect the majority of employees. Often they are a complete waste of time because they are manipulative, stressful, counter-productive, and ineffective. Most organisations tell employees that reviews are necessary for personal development and for salary adjustments, yet they use them for ‘crowd control’ or as a legal tool to oust non-performers or those whom they do not like. Interestingly, this tool has backfired on employers just as many times as it has been useful in court. As a result, modern review documents are drafted by lawyers, written by psychologists, then edited by personnel managers. By the time they reach employees, they are unbelievably convoluted, irrelevant, and downright impossible to implement because the measurement processes are nonsensical.
Regardless of the final scores, pay-rises and bonuses are determined arbitrarily by those who control the purse- strings. Their game reminds me of magicians who start with, ‘Pick a number, any number… ’ and then proceed to tell us what that number is. Managers often know who they want to reward, so the performance review becomes an academic exercise that is reverse-engineered to fit the pool of funds that has been allocated for certain bands of ‘performers’ — or dare one say ‘cohorts’.
I have no objection to managers using subjective and discriminating means to distribute rewards by way of money, title, position, and power. Why go against human nature? No matter how a review mechanism is designed, and no matter how many computerised forms are filled in, managers will still have their own inexplicable justifications for who they like, who they appreciate, who they loath, and who they wish to promote. These intangible feelings cannot be specified on forms. After all, what mathematical reasoning process do you engage in when determining who you like or dislike? The complex emotional and egotistical methods that are used to categorise friends is not something with which a computer can cope. It all boils down to processes that cannot be measured. For more about human behaviour, see Chapter 8, ‘I’m not a racist, but… ’
Nudge nudge, wink wink
When I was eighteen years old, there was a young chain-smoker not far from where I lived. We used to go for walks in the night air. I cannot recall his name, but what sticks in my mind is that he was honest about being stressed. I never knew what troubled him, and I did not ask, but he would say something like, ‘I’m so stressed out… I am under so much pressure.’ That would not normally captivate me, except that he had an obvious twitch. As a youngster, I did not link the two. I had no idea that stress could cause such visible side-effects — not until I suffered the same problem a few years later.
One of my bosses had the nicest smile. She was petite, attractive, and said very little. I automatically assumed that her demeanour made her an agreeable person. But I was in for a shock. Her intimidating ways left me with a twitch that I could not shake off for eighteen months. I did not link the two until she left the company. It is funny how a clear and present threat can linger with us for ages. It can even go undetected until we are far away from the situation to see the real cause. I was unaware that her subtle, yet unrelenting intimidation had such an effect on me. I reflected upon my neighbour. I had erroneously presumed that his twitch was a result of a mental disorder from birth.
I was angry with myself for being so naïve and helpless in my manager’s presence. I always thought that I was tough and resilient. Although at school I was able to take on bullies of all sizes, I had no tactics to handle adults. Worse still, I was untrained to detect the kind of intimidation that led to my nervous twitch. Eventually, I became aware of such terrorisation, but only to a limited extent because I was caught out again with a new mechanism called the ‘performance review’. Regardless of their intended purpose, and irrespective of how they are implemented, performance reviews are demeaning. The whole notion of bosses sitting employees down and grading them, like farmers grade their eggs, is humiliating. Who do they think they are?
For organisations that use performance reviews, it would be difficult to convince them to abandon their entrenched procedures. It would be problematic to engage in a discussion about this because of magnetic thinking — meaning that irreverent logic is used to argue a point about a practice whereby the intention is virtuous, but the execution is flawed.
Advocates of performance reviews could list dozens of benefits. The ultimate and most important one is to improve the company’s performance. With that intention in mind, anyone who argues against reviews would seem to be arguing against improving the company’s performance. This is what is meant by irreverent logic. Of course we should find ways to improve performance. In so doing, managers are warned against using noble intentions to fuel ignoble programs that infest organisations in the guise of excellence.
Over the years, performance assessment schemes have been modified, tweaked, re-cast, and re-designed; all to no avail. For years, performance reviews have attempted to embrace seventeen main areas. These are to: set standards; determine benchmarks; give feedback; coach staff; drive pay-rises; determine promotions; reward on merit; measure performance; document incidents; meet legal obligations; develop talent; outline training requirements; plan careers; highlight weaknesses; raise the alarm for bad employees; give warnings; and justify dismissals.
Any human-resources mechanism would be burdened if it were expected to administer more than one objective; let alone seventeen.
Performance appraisals are not, in themselves, harmful. But the unavoidable side-effects are intolerable. If a commercial medicine caused insufferable side-effects, it would be withdrawn from the market. If a headache tablet worked wonders to relieve pain, but caused hair loss, people would reject it. When the downsides are obvious, it is not hard to understand that an effective product can also be defective.