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.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Gestalt shift

In psychology, a gestalt shift is when your perception suddenly changes. In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein illustrated this with the duck-rabbit illusion: you can see either the duck or the rabbit but not both at the same time. Your brain switches between the two in an instant. Your perception changes. In life, there are longer term gestalt shifts: moments when your perception shifts and suddenly everything has changed. Afterwards, you see things anew and the universe clicks together in a different way (1). I can think of at least two times in my life when these gestalt shifts have occurred and changed everything. 

A German duck / A German rabbit

The first was on the 15th of July 2009 on the day I decided to become a librarian. After an interview for a graduate trainee position at Manchester Metropolitan University Library, I realised I had been more comfortable in that interview room with those other candidates – those library folk – than I had been in many social situations. I gave up a place at law school and completely adjusted my plans in order to pursue a career that felt… right. 

The second was the 18th of July 2012 on a day when I was in Chicago and realised that not only had I survived my trip to America – a trip involving confusion, exhaustion, anxiety, and fear – but I had enjoyed it. I’d enjoyed it more than almost any other experience in my life. By straining at the very edge of my social anxiety, I pushed through the barrier and discovered that I wanted to be around people and do things. 

Since Chicago, things haven’t been the same (2). When I came home, I wrote that I felt like Frodo Baggins at the end of The Lord of the Rings

At the end of The Return of the King, after all his adventures, Frodo Baggins returns to his nice quiet home in the Shire. I always thought that Frodo should be so happy to get home, to write the Red Book of his experiences, and to finally relax after all his hardship. But, Frodo, like his uncle Bilbo before him, finds the Shire changed on his return: or at least, changed for him. He’s seen too much; done too much; suffered and fallen and won. How can you go back to the way things were? How can you ever settle down again? 

That feeling never went away. It seems absurd given all that I’ve done and seen in the past three years but I got into librarianship for the chance of a quiet life. To be left alone with books and infinite curiosity. But experience has changed all that and my curiosity reaches beyond the pages of books. 

A solicitor for whose firm I was doing work experience once told me that I was intelligent and that the curse of intelligence is boredom. He said that intelligent people grow bored easily and that they need – they crave – constant mental stimulation. Otherwise they collapse in on themselves. Since July, I’ve travelled to Sheffield, Edinburgh, Birmingham, and London (several times) in attempts to stave off boredom and recapture the spirit of adventure. Durham – a charming city that I really like – has come to seem too quiet and the North-East has come to seem too empty. When I’ve not been travelling or meeting people or doing things, I’ve been bored. 

Life doesn’t change on its own: you have to make change happen through work, rigour, and intelligence. I’ve worked over the past few months to change things to match my new perception. This has meant a renewed focus on the people in my life, making some personal changes which I don’t want to go into, and making some professional changes which I do want to go into. 

And so, I have several announcements: 

1. I have accepted an invitation to join the Board of SLA Europe as Co-Chair of the Early Careers Committee. I will be taking over from Bethan Ruddock and joining Lyndsay Rees-Jones in organising the Early Career Conferences Awards 2013 (3). 

2. I have accepted a position at the British Library. I will be helping to co-ordinate the Qatar Digitisation Project.

And, as a result of the above: 

3. I will be moving to London. 

I have dreamt of working at the British Library for years. It sounds silly. Some men dream of walking on other planets, some of curing diseases, some of amassing great wealth. Since I read Borges' 'The Library of Babel', I have dreamt of the Total Library (4). The opportunity to work at our main legal deposit library - at the heart of British librarianship - is incredibly exciting. It comes at a point when it benefits me professionally and personally to move to London. And, for the first time in years, I'll be living with other people again rather than on my own: meeting new people and doing new things. 

I've very much valued my time at Durham University Library - particularly the people I've met there. I'm very grateful for the experiences there which have changed me into the person I am now. But it's time to move on.

The British Library at St Pancras in London

Everything is going to change. Gestalt shift. 

(1) For a better expression of this, listen to the song 'Suddenly Everything Has Changed (Death Anxiety Caused by Moments of Boredom)' by The Flaming Lips.

(2) Somehow it seems trite to say this. As if admitting how much that Experience meant to me somehow makes me less because there are people who have been through so much more. But I don’t care. Subjectively it was important. 

(3) A secondary purpose of this blog post is therefore to promote the awards. Look, new professionals! Look at the impact winning the award had on me!

(4) I wrote an essay on the subject for Panlibus and you can read that here. Funnily enough, I did most of the research for that essay in the British Library's Boston Spa Reading Room.