Sometimes the Truth Hurts

I've experienced frank and painful evaluations, and I've handed them out, too.  They are never fun, and often they become something that is dreaded by manager and subordinate, alike.

But you can't beat an honest and direct appraisal when it comes to giving you the information you need to make a smart decision about your future.

Many (most?) managers tend to pussyfoot around when it comes to appraisals.  They bury deadly observations like a needle in a haystack, minimizing their impact and ( or so the manager hopes) any protest the subordinate might make concerning them.  But doing so is fundamentally dishonest, and it also is a huge disservice to the employee.  If the employee doesn't really know where they stand, they aren't likely to change anything.

I can almost hear a manager somewhere complaining that the fatal flaw exhibited by his subordinate can't be changed.  Or, at a minimum, experience has taught the manager that significant change is extremely unlikely.  Such rationalization hardly justifies a mealy-mouthed treatment of the problem area, however.  If there's a one in one hundred chance the employee can "fix" her issue by understanding it, that's certainly better odds than if she's completely unaware.  And if the situation is really as hopeless as the manager thinks, doesn't the employee have a right to know he has no future with the company, and should be looking for a better fitting job elsewhere?  Of course he does!

Let's dispense with the other argument I often hear -- that the employee might have a huge deficiency, but is desperately needed right now.  Does the manager's need  make it okay to lie to the employee when it is convenient to keep him, and blindside him later when the need has been sated?  I think not.  No employee is indispensable,  although losing a particular one might be inconvenient.

The problem with the typical review process is that it seems to be designed to support the kind of cowardly dishonesty described above, and to obscure (if not completely omit) the truth.

The best reviews I received during my career were short, to the point, and identified the two or three things (good or bad) that set my performance apart  from the herd.  They weren't always easy to hear.

The best review I ever received was delivered by one of my early bosses, when he summarized an otherwise lengthy "23 characteristics" with the comment:  "Gets a lot done, but sometimes pisses people off."  Those simple, clear and honest words had a big impact on the way I worked with my peers going forward.

In a later review (by a boss that was terrible at delivering reviews, no less) I heard the less clear, but still useful words:  "You know, sometimes you're a hard guy to have reporting to you."  That thought was delivered in conjunction with a comment about my reluctance to immediately communicate bad news.  I won't say I completely reformed after that bit of feedback, but afterward I was a lot more conscious of how my actions might impact my boss.

When delivering reviews, I came to loath the "23 characteristic" rating systems.  These always seem to have substantial areas of overlap, and there was a tendency to sum up the review with an arithmetic average of the scores on the individual categories.  In my opinion, this is absolutely NOT the way executives really evaluate people.

Instead, I adopted what I called the "elevator speech" review.  In it I tried to summarize what I would tell my own boss about a subordinate if I had only a minute.  That typically consisted of the two or three things the person did exceptionally well (assuming there were some!), and the one or two flaws that were causing them problems or holding them back.

A fictional example might sound something like:  "You showed amazing endurance continuing to work on improving project X until it was a success, but in the process you managed to alienate half of your team.  If you don't get your temper under control, no matter how well you execute projects, you won't last here."

And that would be all.

The similarity of the "elevator speech" review to those evaluations that had an impact on me is not accidental.  Honest, direct, and to the point became my motto.

Rarely did I ever advise employees to go back to school for an MBA (it usually doesn't change a thing in the minds of management -- what they see in the workplace is what counts).  Sometimes I might recommend a seminar to acquire a specific skill or piece of knowledge.  I tried to avoid the "adding it all up and dividing by the number of categories" phenomenon -- because that is not the way executives think about employees.  I sometimes recommended a course of action for improving flaws, but often left it in the employee's court -- afterall, they were often in a better position than I was to determine how to make significant changes work.

So, did my employees love this review technique?

I don't think so.  It lacked the "bad news wrapped in layer after layer of good news" character.  They sometimes walked away from the review, distress, angry or even in denial.

But it was reality.  It was actionable.  And in many instances it gave them critical information to change the trajectory they were on -- information that had been withheld by previous bosses.

Some successfully made behavioral changes.  Others tried, but couldn't manage to change things enough.  A few left when they realized they actually didn't walk on water.

But I never regretted being as honest with my subordinates as I could, even if it hurt.  And over the long haul, I'm betting many of them appreciate it, as well.  15.4

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If you are intrigued by the ideas presented in my blog posts, check out some of my other writing.

Novels: LEVERAGEINCENTIVIZEDELIVERABLES and now HEIR APPARENT (published 3/2/2013) -- note, the Kindle version of DELIVERABLES (a prequel to HEIR APPARENT) is on sale for a limited time for $2.99.

Shown on this page is a montage of all four of the novel covers.

My four Corporate Thrillers in order of publication

My four Corporate Thrillers in order of publication

My novels are based on extensions of my 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.  Most were inspired by real events.