Fatal Flaw #2: Nobody Opens Up with the Person Who Pokes Them in the Eye

The following is an overview and one of the Eight Fatal Flaws of traditional performance management from the book. I’ve condensed the content and removed much of the research in order to keep this post shortish – check out the book for the “full meal deal” – MTC

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are eight basic reasons that our old standby performance management process creates as much distrust, disengagement, and wasted effort as it indubitably does. In other words, eight reasons why traditional performance management is almost universally hated, and eight reasons why it simply doesn’t work. I call them the Eight Fatal Flaws.

Fatal Flaw #2: Nobody opens up with the person who pokes them in the eye.
Traditional performance management impedes the reception of feedback and limits honest dialogue.

Imagine that you’re an employee whose third child has just arrived. You really need just two things: more sleep and a raise. At your company, the possibility of that raise is tied to your yearly performance review, which is coming up in a few weeks. What do you do? You plan for that danged thing. You dredge up every last project you completed and work to spin it so that you look golden. You collect evidence and forward it to your boss. You get yourself all amped up for the conversation ahead. You’re pumped. You’re going to kill it!

Now let’s freeze-frame and look at your state of mind at this point. Are you going to be open to hearing anything your supervisor might say that doesn’t support your story? Are you in a mental place where you can take in and process feedback on your performance? No, you aren’t. Your survival is at stake (or at least it feels like it is). Your focus is entirely on making yourself look good, on “winning” that performance review, and the last thing you’re in the mood to talk about is where you need more development.

When we analyze this scenario, we can see that the inherent dynamics of the situation have gone bad in three major ways:

  • It’s made your boss an adversary. Heaven forbid she doesn’t agree with the rosy picture you’ve painted. Any whiff of disagreement between the two of you will only heighten the adversarial tension.
  • Your goal isn’t to have a dialogue. You’re thinking of it first as a sales job and then, if necessary, as a debate. You sure aren’t going in to have a heart-to-heart or to admit to any weakness in front of her.
  • The situation has placed the control in the hands of your manager. This reinforces the superior-subordinate relationship—the opposite of empowerment.

And what is on this manager’s mind, you ask? Well, let’s put ourselves in her shoes for a moment. Imagine you have seven employees reporting to you. Your team has had a solid year, but you have extremely limited resources to offer salary increases. Even worse, your executive leadership has made it clear that if you rank too many of your people as top performers, you’ll be reviewed lower yourself for being too lenient and for violating “top performer” quotas. But there isn’t a clear “low performer” in the bunch: each and every one of them contributed well, collaborated with one another, and ultimately delivered great results. As the manager, are you going to go into this conversation with an open mind and as a keen collaborator in your employee’s success? Sadly, no. It’s likely that you will be defensive from the get-go. How could you not? You’re caught in a bind, denying rewards to employees you feel have earned them while defending a position and a process you don’t agree with. Talk about demoralizing.

But what about the rest of the year, when the performance review isn’t just around the corner? Isn’t everyone inclined to be more open then? Unfortunately, no. The superior-subordinate paradigm set up by the performance review process creates a permanent barrier to open dialogue between managers and employees. There is simply no way you as an employee can have an open and honest conversation about your own performance, hopes, fears, and goals with a person who is going to judge you, especially if her judgment affects such important aspects of your life as salary, recognition, and promotion. And that person who has to judge you? She’s not going to have an honest conversation about how you can grow and develop if she knows that she has to keep your expectations low, or dash them altogether, often for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your performance.

The result? Open communication doesn’t stand a chance. How can we keep on with a system that's so inherently flawed that it actually does the opposite of what we want it to do?

Until next time, happy rebooting!


P.S. Don’t miss a post – sign up here for my email list to keep up to date on PM Reboot ideas and the book release.

P.P.S. Please help spread the PM Reboot revolution by sharing with your networks!