Thursday, 22 November 2012

An idiot's guide to Annual Staff Reviews

One of my last major tasks at Durham University Library was delivering performance reviews for several members of my team. At this point in my career, professional colleagues and friends are approaching similar levels: a level of semi-management where we’re asked to perform tasks involving supervision of co-workers, people management, and people skills. There’s a point at which a career built around a love of books and computers becomes a career about people and this task felt like a milestone on that professional journey. 


At Durham University, the Annual Staff Review (1) process requires a university employee to reflect on his/her performance over the past year (ideally with reference to his/her review from the previous year). He/she then meets with a supervisor to discuss his/her performance, to set some objectives for the coming year, and to identify any development needs.

Generic image of a manager and his young, dynamic, multi-ethnic team with only one woman. From Flickr user: Victor1558.

That’s how the process was explained to me at a Human Resources course. I was open-minded as I entered the ‘Old Library’ (2) at Grey’s College and availed myself of free (filter!) coffee and free (fresh!) cookies. I’d returned from London a day earlier than I wanted to specifically so that I could attend the course. I wanted to understand more about the process and to develop myself. But as the Human Resources representative spoke at length about the corporate philosophy behind the process and the pop psychology that undergirds the exercise, I felt my enthusiasm wane. The more the rep explained that it was not a ‘box-ticking exercise’, the more I felt it was. I drank more coffee and thought that the ASR process formalises something that should happen organically. True development – true growth – comes not from filling in forms or setting clear, quantifiable objectives in a report to be signed and countersigned by two heads of department both of whom are performing dozens of identical reviews themselves with dozens of employees and thus filling in more forms and setting more clear, quantifiable objectives to be signed and countersigned ad infinitum. Psychological development is free-flowing and natural following from what a person wants and chooses to do. Not everyone fits a rigid model of 12-month objectives and 5-year plans: some people take years to grow into themselves; some, in a spurt of months, suddenly become the person they’d always wanted to be; some push and push and still find themselves unable to change. I left the training course with a bladder full of coffee and a heart full of disappointment. 


However, my ideological objections were a cover to my real problem. I was scared. I’m not a manager and I’ve never thought of myself as a leader. At library school, I hated – and got the lowest marks in – the module on management. Aside from feeling like I lacked the requisite skills, I thought that I was no fit person to evaluate anyone else. I’m a lucky moron who, through some hard work and a lot of luck, manages to live a charmed life muddling through his career and his personal life. I also felt too ‘meta’: as if I’d always be standing outside the process looking in it while it was happening (3). How could I evaluate someone else? How could anyone? 

And what if I failed? Management, in some sense, requires taking responsibility for other people’s wellbeing. I felt responsible for helping someone to develop: for looking at him/her, evaluating him/her, and seriously and earnestly helping him/her to grow as a person and an information professional. That’s why I returned from London a day early for the training course and that’s why I refused to go home on that day despite a terrible migraine. I was responsible to those I had to review. 


Generic image of 'preparation'. From Flickr user: agrilifetoday.
As with any challenge, preparation helped. I organised dates and times to meet my reviewees, I booked rooms for the meetings, and I read their self-completed Annual Staff Review forms. I prepared scripts dictating how I intended to guide the hour-long conversations. Most importantly, I sat down and really thought about the other people. Who are they? What do I know about them? How do they work? What do they do on a day-to-day basis? How do they feel about that? How have they developed? This was a fascinating experience: how often does one really think long and hard about the experience of being another human being? One can attain high levels of empathy with good friends or those with whom one is in a relationship but co-workers can be a different matter. We can share the same room with them for 7 hours a day every day but never stop to consider their phenomenological experience, their stream-of-consciousness, their unique Dasein. Who is this other person and what it is like to be him/her? 


When the time came for the reviews, I dressed more smartly than usual and comported myself slightly more professionally than usual. I took the reviews seriously and hoped that my reviewees would follow my example and do the same. I continued to prepare to the degree that I would want a reviewer to do: made sure all was ready for the meetings and read through my notes.

I decided to conduct the reviews in a three-part structure covering past, present, and future (4). 'Present' outlined the procedure, gave a quick introduction to the ASR process, and told the reviewee what was going to happen. 'Past' involved a review of the year as a whole, a discussion of major successes, a discussion of failures, and any comments that the reviewee wished to make about how the library is run. 'Future' involved identifying development needs based on our previous discussion and setting objectives to meet these needs over the coming year. This structure seemed nice and neat and turned out to be a good way to drive discussion forward.

During the actual reviews, I pretended. I pretended that I was a confident manager in a position to evaluate someone’s performance. I pretended that I knew in what direction I was taking the conversation. I pretended to be an interviewer having had years of experience on the other side of the interview desk. I pretended not to be scared. 

And not only did I get through the reviews but they went extraordinarily well. I drew people out of themselves, led them to discuss their ambitions and dreams, set themselves goals, and uncover psychological and developmental threads that hadn’t been set down in the forms. I pretended to be a professional and a manager and I pretended enough that I came to believe it. If you pretend to be someone for long enough, maybe it becomes who you are. 


The rep in Human Resources said a lot about how to conduct reviews and how to treat people but I thought I could boil it all down to one phrase. A golden rule for management and a golden rule for how to be a human being: 

Don’t be a dick. 

Dickishness makes Jesus facepalm. From Flickr user: tonystl.
In some ways, this is a modern variation on Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative (“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”) which is itself a variation on Jesus of Nazareth’s Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"). Both of which are put differently by Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “…you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” 

People sometimes tell me that I’m nice. Occasionally when I wonder why people are so nice to me, friends tell me that it’s because I’m nice to people. Delivering Annual Staff Reviews led me to realise that I am good with people: over the past two years, I’ve levelled up and am therefore capable of whole new tasks and a whole new skill tree that had previously been blocked off. When I move next month and open up a new area of the world-map to explore, I know I’ll be able to survive. 

The only way to survive and to succeed around other people is to think of them as people in their own right as valuable and important as yourself. Treat people with respect, manage them as you would want to be managed, listen to them, understand where they’re coming from, don’t be a dick. (5) 

(1) ASR. 

(2) A room which turned out to be neither particularly old nor, judging from the lack of books, a library. 

(3) I’ve done this in the past in interviews, dates, and other social situations whereby I ‘step outside’ the high-pressure event I’m taking part in and comment on it while it’s happening. These are generally descriptive comments about clich├ęs that I notice, analytical comments attempting to analyse why I’m behaving in a certain way, or evaluative comments like “This is going badly” or, far more often, “This is going well.” 

(4) A Christmas Carol is one of my dad's favourite books and its influence continues to be felt on my psyche.

(5) Last Sunday, Charlie Brooker used this as his third rule for interacting with other people on the Internet but I have referred to the phrase as my philosophy before this and the tweet is somewhere out there to prove it.


stjerome said...

As ever, a most thought-provoking piece! I whole-heartedly agree that staff development reviews are not about the reviewer/manager having their say, they are all about the reviewee! It's the reviewee's time to reflect, discuss, develop ... The manager is there to enable the reviewee to be able to do these things. Well done you for getting such positive comments and making the experience a valuable one for your staff.

Ian said...

Speaking as someone who is relatively experienced in management and staff reviews (in both public and private sectors) I can only agree that the key thing is to treat people as people. Get from them what they see as their development opportunities and, if they don't identify areas that you think are priorities, try to steer them towards them. Not an easy thing to do, but if you let them take the lead (in a relatively controlled manner) you give them ownership - which is important in so many ways.

The only thing I would say is that to ensure that any review does reflect achievements as much as what "needs to be done"'s always good to highlight those and makes people feel valued. As does demonstrating confidence in their abilities and a willingness to trust them with tasks that you may feel inclined to have control over.

In retail we were always taught to structure things in a kind of "benefits", "concerns", "do differently" type way...which I think ties in with what I said above...give them the ownership.

I could write a whole lot more on my experiences with management, but it would be very dull and a blog post in its own right. My experiences, overall, have been mixed in both sectors. But I think having that experience of two very different styles of management have helped me immensely. Although maybe the staff I have line managed over the years would view things differently :)

(Apologies for the dis-jointed comment - rush written in my lunch when I had planned to do something else!)

Ian said...

Gratuitous plug alert: I did write a "dull" post on my experiences in management here:

I only add this to put my previous comment into a little context :)

woodsiegirl said...

Great advice, many thanks for writing it! I've never managed anyone and the very thought of doing so terrifies me, so it's good to have this kind of honest advice from someone who's new to it. Bookmarking for future reference :)


I pretended to be a professional and a manager and I pretended enough that I came to believe it. If you pretend to be someone for long enough, maybe it becomes who you are.

<< THIS. A thousand times this. That's exactly how I approach everything that I'm new to and scared about: just pretend to be someone who is experienced and not terrified. Amazing how well that approach seems to work!

Simon Barron said...

Thanks for the comments.

The main thing I learned was that I had to make the reviews about the reviewees. So no matter how nervous or full of self-doubt I felt, the reviews weren't about me. I had to push past my neuroses and get the reviews done well for the other people.

I've added a paragraph about how I structured the reviews themselves and how this helped to develop positive discussion.

Ian said...

*puts on Columbo voice* And another thing...I think it's also important not to think of it as an 'annual' review ie a review is only conducted once a year. Reviews should be periodic (either quarterly or at least bi-annually) and these reviews should be seen as an opportunity to adapt and review the annual development plan. So it shouldn't really be a twelve month plan of objectives, it should evolve throughout the year (ideally - this is not always possible). On top of that, there should be regular, informal discussions to touch base and see how people are progressing.

I have to admit, the first time I did such reviews (back in my retail days) it was quite unnerving. However, I soon found that even with the most, er, "difficult" of staff members it really isn't as bad as you would fear. In fact, I grew to kind of like it.

Apologies for the frequent comments. I was in a number of manager-y type roles for around nine years before moving to my current role (which has no line management responsibility). And you know what? I actually kind of miss it. And this "missing it" is something I have been thinking about a lot lately so your post caught me at the right (or "wrong" as you may see it ;) ) moment.

I think I'm done :)

Simon Barron said...

That continual development point is a good one and I mentioned it to the reviewees in my introductory spiel. Unfortunately I also had to make something of a joke out of it since I'm not going to be here to monitor their development or to review them in the future. This is kind of a shame but, due to the staffing structure here at the moment, it can't be helped.

Clearly you need to become a manager again, Ian. It'd be a good outlet for your 'controlling tendencies' ;) #JOKE

Gareth Osler (@LibraryWeb) said...

I think I can be a bit more idiotic (namely being qualified to be, a CBA from the 90s ;)

I tend to think of an appraisal along the same lines as when planning, in this context more often known as the situation analysis (a SWOT being one thinking tool to approach this with if the situation warrants - textbook interview technique often refer to the candidate's strengths). However it is not the business which is the subject of the situation analysis in this case, but the member of staff - the current situation regarding the individual and the goals of the organisation.

My second point is goals. This should really be the first point as a situation analysis/ appraisal follows on from organisation goals. If I can offer a real idiots definition of the term goals here, think of a baby building a toy brick tower, that is a goal, accept it is not toy brick towers that we build as adults. (If goals were themselves to be formulated then the exercise would technically I think become an assessment - strategic planning.) So the question of the appraisal then becomes I would suggest one of the current situation regarding individual's talents and organisation goals [- where the individual's and organisation's goals overlap this is known as goal congruence; we're also into the realm of motivation here, everybody's goals and values will be different]. (It follows also the individual may have weaknesses in respect of those goals - if things have changed in the past 12 months and objectives have changed, etc., the motivation and personal development aspect of things, etc.).

An action plan of some description usually follows, the individual setting themselves goals to achieve that plan but also with the knowledge of how what they do fits into the wider scheme of things. (Plans do necessarily sometimes have to change for this reason.)

The above is only my own approach, synthesised and precipitated out over the years - into very much an idiot's guide ;)

Librarianship degree course reading I note often includes chapters on management within the sector, one book I have not read myself but for librarians:

Performance Management and Appraisal
A how-to-do-it manual for librarians
G. Edward Evans

'how-to-do-it manual for librarians' is a series by Neal-Schuman Publishers. There may be other realated and maybe more salient books for a given context from the series.

Research I am told suggests that managers tend to be from the social science side of things - the people perspective that these studies have.

I wouldn't though quit the day job just yet if you intend to go into writing idiots guides, you need much more of an understanding of how idiotic the world is to become talented at that ;)

Best of luck :)

stuart lawson said...

In the Management module that I took last year for my LIS masters, I had exactly the same thought after hearing a long spiel about how to interact with people: a whole lot of theory which basically distills down to "don't be a dick". It's mildly concerning to think that there are managers out there that need to be taught this ;)

katefromuk said...

Great post Simon and glad you did so well on this task. It sounds like you enjoyed it? And that you've discovered you are a people manager?

It'll be interesting to hear what you think of your next appraisal and how your manager handles that as you'll no doubt be seeing things from a different perspective.

I agree wholeheartedly that the point of review is for the individual to reflect on the past, present and future. That when done well is a continuous process that almost goes unseen throughout the year, and is most definitely not a twice a year trial.

I always try to discuss work on objectives with my team at regular one to ones throughout the year. That way we jointly begin to create a log of achievements, development points, triumphs and disasters which all feeds into the annual appraisal.

Sian said...

Excellent post, Simon. I really appreciate reading your insights as a developing professional. I recommend your blog often - and will be particularly recommending this post.

Fancy doing a little spot in person?

Sian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sian said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sian said...

ooops apologies for the "i'm not a robot" repeat nonsense posts

timbuckle said...

Great blog post! This is why I am gutted you are leaving. Everyone around you can see how ultra talented you are in your role but you have never fully realised that before and thats why you bring out the best in the staff you manage. You have people's respect.
I know you are not my manager but just from working alongside you and talking to you I have started focusing more on my career and what I want and where I want it to go. To quote a song from Wicked "People come into your life for a reason" and I think that is true and you have had a big impact on me and others at Durham. The bonus is that you have become a mate as well. If I ever get the chance to do a more senior role I hope I have some of your characteristics.
The British Library are very lucky to be getting you.

Simon Barron said...

Thanks Tim. That means more than you'll know. It's comments like that that make me so sorry to be leaving Durham and the library's lovely people. But, despite it being superstitious nonsense, I do believe that everything happens for a reason and that I have a life ready and waiting for me in London.

Remember that it's only you who can make the changes happen that you want to happen. Just do what I do: pretend until it becomes who you are.

Ruth said...

Another great post Simon. So many times I found myself nodding along in agreement. I am forever pretending to be a grown up - especially these last couple of months in my first professional post. Don't they know I'm just a tall child?!

I haven't had experience of staff reviews yet, but I imagine it will be coming my way soon. This post has set me up well for it. I really enjoy your philosophical deconstructions of these kind of things.

Gareth Osler (@LibraryWeb) said...

An additional thought to my idiot's definition of goals: a goal as 'the current focus of effort' (your actions effectively imply your goals - the strategy of an organisation can be inferred from their actions, etc.).

Apart from which I do agree with Simon, the ends of the review and appraisal process are more often than not it seems lost to the majority (if not all!) of the staff for some reason.

If the ends of the exercise are kept in mind I'm not sure it would even take an annual meeting to attain them. Surely this is a process that should be continuous and ongoing in nature, reviews, (re)appraisals, documentation, etc. being more of a necklace type [design] pattern with repeating iterations within broader cycles (we're into the realm of project management methodology here - is an approach actually doing more harm to an organisation than proving to be a valuable value adding activity? etc.). As a footnote I'd also add reviews are a key element (from my own experience at least) of any political abuse that is going on within an organisation - 'cooking the books' being the relevant idiom here - and corrupt(ed) management and the costs the relevant concept.

At the end of the day and with people matters in general, if a person with people responsibilities does what is within their power for the benefit of the individual, then no one can really expect more, and people are usually grateful for that alone (my own approach though somewhat limited experience in this area, it works quite well).

Gareth Osler (@LibraryWeb) said...

On the subject of the outcomes of annual reviews - no one has mentioned a review as part of a learning process - the nowse between the ears of staff being in this age of more often than not not entirely unskilled jobs being a key asset of an organisation.

(I'll shut up now ;)

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