During my first face-to-face meeting with Peter Block, who influenced me greatly with his writing on stewardship, accountability, and empowerment, we got into a discussion of how best to judge the performance of subordinates. He told me he had once been an advocate of “annual reviews” in which the boss would meet with a subordinate and go over the previous year. One day, in a moment of reflection, Block imagined calling his wife into his office at home. “Sit down, honey. It’s time for your annual review.” The absurdity of this imaginary session prompted him to change his mind about reviews. He realized that the relationship between supervisor and subordinate should be closer to a partnership of equals. He suggested a process within organizations that starts with the subordinate doing an extensive self-review. The leader’s role in this approach is much diminished from that of the typical supervisor-led review. The boss becomes primarily a commentator, questioner, encourager, and, to a lesser extent, an evaluator.
I decided to try a variation of this approach with my senior team. Fourteen of us gathered at the home of one of the team members. One by one, each of us reviewed our own performance during the previous year. Most people outlined their successes, failures, and problems, as well as their goals for the year ahead. In nearly every case, four or five would offer a comment or question something the person had said. Sometimes they reinforced the person’s self-assessment; other times they suggested a problem or an accomplishment that had not been mentioned.
We held this type of session annually until I left the company. It became one of my favorite evenings with the senior team. There was not, of course, perfect honesty. Light did not shine on every issue. It was much too general for those who preferred specific quantifiable goals, but it was enormously valuable in other ways. It honored each individual as an important member of the team, regardless of title or status or compensation. It allowed us to show our respect for one another. It brought us closer together as a group. At the same time, I got a good sense of how people thought they had performed—and whether their self-assessments squared with the views of their colleagues.
I was a full participant in these discussions. I reviewed my own performance and chipped in comments about my colleagues. I took notes and afterward wrote a report summarizing the reviews. That report was submitted to the board of directors and to the compensation committee, which found it helpful when evaluating organizational changes and setting compensation. Doing annual reviews in a team setting was far more revealing and effective than having bosses do individual assessments of their subordinates. As Rob Lebow and Randy Spitzer wrote in Accountability: Freedom and Responsibility Without Control, “Too often, appraisal destroys human spirit and, in the span of a 30-minute meeting, can transform a vibrant, highly committed employee into a demoralized, indifferent wallflower who reads the want ads on the weekend. … They don’t work because most performance appraisal systems are a form of judgment and control.”
For too long, organizations have confused accountability with controls. My experience is that no one wants to be controlled but that most people want to know how well they performed. Keeping score is a central part of the competitive experience, and it plays a crucial role in making games enjoyable. It doesn’t seem to matter if the game is Hopscotch, Four Square, Horseshoes, Hearts, Boggle, or the World Cup, we keep score and care about the results. We may lose as often as we win, but at least we can measure our performance.
The key to Joy at Work is the freedom to make decisions that matter to the organization. The extensive self-review and team-based assessment is just one step to creating a fun workplace.