Knowing What You Prove

Something that I touched on a while ago was how you go about exploring the concept of a “performance review”. We’re used to these kinds of “rational” exercises in our cartesian world of cause and effect. A performance review takes a lot of forms: interviews, quality management processes,

Morgue recently posted on this topic; his words struck me as both true and discordant with the stated objectives of these processes:

The performance review isn’t about reviewing performance – that happens all the time, in an ongoing way, the manager is always reviewing the employee’s performance, the employee is always interpreting their own performance.

This has been true about most of my performance reviews over the years, and I was struck when talking to an acquaintance recently that this basic surety of outcome probably applies to most formal examining where there’s a strong teacher/pupil relationship.

Perhaps Morgue’s conclusions about the process enabling communication between moving parts in the machinery of your job are okay as far as they go. However, I am also inclined to think that this is a somewhat glib dismissal of the importance of the activity in many instances. If you already know the answer, why are you asking the question? Why structure your thoughts in terms of “performance” and “review” if the “performance” is already adequately monitored, and the “review” is nominal?

The most recent performance review for me has been the application of CPEng. It would have been easy to get complacent and/or cynical about this process for two reasons:
1. I well and truly exceed the minimum standards for experience expected in the CPEng standard.
2. I have done enough “peer” reviews of work by supposedly competent professionals that the standard itself begins to seem a bit thin.

In real terms however, I think that the truly professional attitude must be to undertake the self-review process with clear and open eyes, and attempt to actually fulfil the spirit as well as the letter of the standard. This is what worried me about doing it: I have never been too concerned that I couldn’t produce sufficient evidence to convince the panel of my expertise; my concern was convincing myself.

This meant that a significant part of this process for me was looking into jobs where I had fallen short of the standard: jobs where mistakes were made. Nobody is infallible, and so if you look back without seeing errors one of two things is happening: You’re missing something, or you’re not trying hard enough. The standard for a professional engineer is that you can apprehend problems and utilize rational methods to determine a design outcome in the absence of a template. Sure, we have codes, guides, peer reviews: but at the end of the day, the standard is higher than plugging numbers into the correct formula.

Finding mistakes is therefore a crucial learning exercise. A performance review that finds no mistakes, which certifies the candidate’s impression of total competence, has failed. It has not enabled the candidate to improve in their practice, or it has confirmed that the candidate is being wasted in their current role.

In my case, I think that the performance review found some significant shortfalls – I identified several of the 12 “core competences” where I now know that I have inadequate training and experience. Having identified these shortcomings, I was able to do two useful things:
1. I undertook additional reading and study to shore up knowledge not imparted in my real practice
2. I was able to limit and control my practice area to exclude areas where I’m not competent

The nett result of my labours has been that reviewing my competence actually improved it. Even in the short few months since I began to seriously compile my evidence and work through the self-review, I have found small benefits in how I deal with clients and problems compared to beforehand.

Proving my competence was always going to be the easy part of the CPEng challenge – the hard part was actually being competent.

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4 Responses to Knowing What You Prove

  1. mr_orgue says:

    This is a fantastic piece. I agree about the glib and insufficient nature of my comments; I was trying to hard to be clever and funny and not trying hard enough to be truthful, there, if I’m honest.

    …I’ve just tried to say more but I think your piece speaks for itself so well that I can’t think of anything to add. So I’ll just leave off with a Yeah, Man.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hey ‘mash – this is Dan L’Estrange… I’m back in town..

    This post doesn’t really mesh with my idea of a performance review, mainly because I think it (your post) focuses too much on the performance of the individual being reviewed and not the intent and results that a performance review can drive.

    To me, Performance reviews are not about evaluating performance and setting additional standards or ever increasing standards for the individual being reviewed, I think that if you think that way, you are eventually going to get to a review with incorrect assumptions about your performance compared to your managers assumptions/review of your performance. Thus you will get a difficult review – where you manager is saying you need to improve – but you may not think so.

    Performance reviews IMO are about setting expectations – both of the individual being reviewed AND of the manager doing the review. Its kinda hard to explain – but a review is a developmental process and an affirmation process for both reviewer and reviewed…

    The problem with the approach you seem to be commenting on is that most often the reviewed believes that it is criticism of their work – something that they may be doing absolutely fine, making minimal mistakes – yet the manager is saying, “well, we kinda want you to do better, and develop your skills”. But the reviewed is saying “but I do the job fine, why do I need to develop any more skills”.. (or in your case “I well and truly exceed the minimum standards for experience expected in the CPEng standard”)

    I dunno ‘mash, maybe I need to explain this in person one day (I do alot of performance reviews)… I don’t think my message is clear…

    • mashugenah says:

      Welcome back Dan! 🙂 I’m in Auckland for the weekend, but hopefully next time you’re having some drinks I can make it along.

      and an affirmation process

      I think this is the key bit, right?

      I get what you’re saying. Ultimately performance is about “does this person do what they need to do” and if they do, where’s the problem? I get that.

      Perhaps I’ve pushed a particular perspective on it a bit far. There’s got to be some middle ground between the uninquisitive sign-off that I’ve experienced and the torturous inquisition that I’m probably advocating here.

      • Anonymous says:

        The affirmation process is key, but only in the context that the developmental process is also part of this affirmation.

        “There’s got to be some middle ground between the uninquisitive sign-off that I’ve experienced and the torturous inquisition that I’m probably advocating here. ”

        And there is, I’ll try to explain with an example. Note that performance reviews are not one-offs (or at least they shouldn’t be) as performance should be evaluated over time.

        Performance Review One:
        Employee: Am I doing a good job?
        Manager: Yeah you are, but there are some development needs that need to be addressed. Lets discuss…
        Employee: Cool, lets get on to it…

        Performance Review two:
        Employee: I’ve addressed those development needs, and I think I’m doing an awesome job!
        Manager: Well, yeah. You have addressed those development needs, but there are other things I think we can work on.
        Employee: Huh? am I not doing a good job???

        In this example it is only the manager that has brought to the meeting the development needs (in both cases), thus the employee thinks once those needs are addressed, and that they are performing well in the job (accolades and the like) that basically its payrise time… the employee – like a player in a traditional RPG – is looking to the manager to provide the story, evaluate the performance and give the treasure.

        This goes against what the manager actually wants to do, which is to create a drive for the employee to continually look to ways in which they can perform better, and that they (the employee) can make the job more efficient or faster or less mistakes… basically better in all aspects. This is not a goal that can be “achieved” as such, its an ongoing process that will never have an end.

        Example two –

        Performance review one:
        [the same as above]

        Performance review two:
        Employee: I’ve addressed those development needs, and I think I’m doing an awesome job! But there are things that I think I can work on, or things that I would like you (the manager) to help me address.
        Manager: Yeah, you are doing an awesome job. What sorts of things do you want to work on in the future?
        Employee: Well… I’m really interested in improving my…. (whatever)

        Performance Review three:
        Employee: Well I have improved my (whatever), but in doing so made a few mistakes in my other responsibilities.. etc
        Manager: But you are still doing an awesome job, and I liked the way you made steps to improve your (whatever), lets address these mistakes….

        In this example the manager isn’t necessaryily evaluating the employees performance in the role, but rather is evaluating the employees performance in the tasks that the employee has set as development goals. The manager is looking at the overall picture of the employees performance, and while it seems that the employee has set themselves “extra tasks” the extra tasks can be (and are likely to be) actual tasks that they need to do in the role normally.

        This shifts the focus of the managers performace review from evaluating the performance of the employee against other employees or some standard set six months ago by the HR boffins with big words like “developing need” or “exceptional business skills” which really mean nothing at all, to a _real_ measure of performance which is goals set compared to goals achieved.

        Also on the plus side for the employee it shows to the manager that they are thinking about their role, trying to come up with new ideas, developing themselves as an employee and most importantly adding value to themselves as an employee. Which then means payrise.

        Clear as mud?

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