4 Ways Your Annual Review Is A Game Of ‘Calvinball’

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Originally posted at Forbes.com

As the end of the year fast approaches, employers and employees everywhere are embarking upon the annual exercise of the performance review. For too many, this experience is less like a genuine moment of competency evaluation and improvement insight, and more like a game of Calvinball with a salary increase at stake.

For the too young or the uninitiated, Calvinball is the name of the game created by Calvin, the infamous, imaginative six-year-old, and Hobbes, his best friend/stuffed tiger, who owned the comic strip universe in the late ’80s through the mid-’90s as Calvin and Hobbes.

The game itself represented pure, undiluted imagination run amok, with very little in the way of operating rules. In fact, there were only two:

  1. rules are made up as you go along, and
  2. you can’t play Calvinball the same way twice.

To go with these two anti-rules, Calvinball was played with a bizarre array of equipment, ranging from masks, volleyballs, and croquet mallets to songs, poetry, and buckets of cold water. In Calvinball, the game is as likely to end in an escalating cycle of revenge as it is in declaring a winner, and the only things that are impossible are predictability (see Rule #1) and improvement (see Rule #2).

On the other hand, personal and professional improvement is supposed to be the whole point of the performance review exercise. Yet, surveys consistently show that the majority of employees find this process both a waste of valuable productivity time and largely irrelevant to the actual task of getting their jobs done and done well. The numbers are even worse for management:

Furthermore, about 66% of employees say the performance review process interferes with their productivity, and 65% say it isn’t even relevant to their jobs, according to a CEB survey of 13,000 employees worldwide.

It’s not just employees who are unhappy. About 95% of managers say they aren’t satisfied with their organizations’ performance management processes either, and 90% of HR professionals don’t believe their companies’ performance reviews provide accurate information, CEB researchers found.

These aren’t likely to change until those in charge of the performance review process start looking to avoid these Calvinball-esque tendencies:

1. “The score is still Q to 12.” – Byzantine Metrics

It isn’t about the precision of the scoring system. As Google’s Laszlo Bock writes in his book, Work Rules!, Google’s “ludicrously precise” 41-point scoring scale of 1.0 to 5.0 didn’t make it an accurate one for judging their people and making decisions about their pay. Whether your system uses a five labels, a 41-point scale, or a series of color coded judgments, the key is to recognize that clarity should be the goal, not merely precision. Now matter how well-crafted and how far past the decimal point they may be measured, ranking metrics fail when managers aren’t clear what they mean, and when employees aren’t clear on how they can truly earn the best score possible … whether that’s a “Q” or a “12.”

This brings us to …

2. “I switched goals. This is your goal, and mine is hidden.” – Moving Targets

Identifying specific goals for individual employees at the beginning of the year is supposed to serve a purpose beyond just making the annual review at the end of the year appear objective. It is supposed to give people targets at which to aim their efforts that, when hit, drive the organization towards hitting its targets. But, if those targets routinely get changed in the middle of the year (maybe even more than once), then it isn’t just the fairness of the end-year review that gets damaged. Ever-shifting goals rarely drive behavior.

3. “I declared it oppositely by not declaring it.” – Lack Of Forthrightness

As Dave Ramsey oft says, “To be unclear is to be unkind.” When expectations are left unspoken but still very relevant to the judgment rendered against an employee, “unkind” is an understatement. Unfortunately, it is easy but wrong to believe that only the oblivious George Constanzas of the world wouldn’t know “that sort of thing is frowned upon.” It seems too obvious to need to be said, and yet it must: if an activity or behavior is going to factor in the annual judgment of an employee, it has to be openly and clearly declared ahead of time. Unless, of course, you have an “opposite pole.”

4. “This game lends itself to certain abuses.” – Gaming And Arbitrary Enforcement

When the metrics are opaque, the goals malleable, and some of the expectations unspoken, arbitrary mischief gets baked into the system design This remains true even if the actual people involved in administering the performance evaluation do so with the most honorable of intentions. That mischief is made worse by the application of outcome-determinative modifications like forced ranking and forced distribution of ratings across an organization.

These same problems that hollow out the usefulness of the performance review for the employee’s sake does the same from the organization’s perspective. When a performance review system has a low degree of clarity and a high degree of arbitrariness, opportunities arise to game the system by enterprising employees. Once that begins to occur, the organization begins to drift off-course as it puts stock in supposedly objective measures and metrics that are not accurately reflecting reality.

Remember: nobody wins Calvinball. The point of the game is simply to waste time and avoid getting stuck in a vortex inside the boomerang zone. Assuming you want more from your performance review system, avoiding these problems has to be as important a priority as having the performance review system in the first place. Otherwise, to quote Bock once again, your performance review will be nothing more than a “rule-based bureaucratic process, existing as an end in itself rather than actually shaping performance.”

In a word: Calvinball … without the masks and the Perimeter of Wisdom.