My #2 son procrastinated his college application essays until just two days ago–the very last minute. Why? He’s a math and music guy, not a writer. That’s right: a key evaluation mechanism relies on his Achilles heel. There’s a reason that this sounds like your experience in the workplace; the sad part is that it’s fairly easy to fix.
I wrote on Facebook, “If my music-math son is required to write essays for his college applications, I think everyone else should be forced to either write music compositions or do complicated math problems.” Right?
Of course, all of the language people think that the SAT is the means to math evaluation. Not quite. The SAT has three components, only ONE of which is mathematics. My spouse — another math brain — also pointed out that the SAT doesn’t present truly complicated math problems. The language people — of which I am one — are wrong in this case.
Here’s why I bring this up, and what this has to do with the workplace: to point out that in the same way that history is written by the winners, those who benefit from a skewed evaluation system are quick to defend it.
At some workplaces, employees get judged their ability to check the box, get things done, to organize.
Other workplaces judge employees by how good they are at troubleshooting, or how good they are at out-of-the-box thinking, or how good they are at closing a sale or retaining a customer through skilled diplomacy.
In the workplace, I see so many folks going crazy over trying to evaluate different employees in different ways — ways that may be like evaluating a math person on how well they write an essay. I look at the complex evaluation matrices that most large organizations have and think: unless you’re a Renaissance man or woman, you’re hosed.
How about this: is the employee contributing more than he or she takes? Does the employee have good intent and attitude? Is the employee learning?
Talking like this among professional bureaucrats creates all sorts of fear and brain lockup: ooooh, if I do that, I’m gonna get SUED!
The lawyers tell us to evaluate everyone in the same way. Not only fine, but fair. That doesn’t mean that we need to overreact and dig down into the employee’s process of creating the desired outcome — just that the way we judge outcomes should be the same.
There is a way to evaluate outcomes consistently in a way that respects individuals as human beings instead of cogs in a factory machine.
The trouble in the modern bureaucracy is that those who go from cog to master cylinder believe that the system works. If they don’t believe in the system, they don’t believe in themselves. Again: History is written by the winners; the winners of a broken evaluation system believe that it is not broken.
Those of us who have “won” — that is, who have risen to positions where we’re doing the evaluating — have an obligation to be critical of the system and to improve it. The question is, how?
A few suggestions:
Chill out. Stop thinking that your way is the right or only way. Those of us who have a little bit of OCD (myself included) naturally think that the way to success is through being a little obsessive about the details, and so on. Bzzt! Wrong answer. People have different styles: stop focusing on the moral equivalent of what someone’s PowerPoint usage habits are, and start looking at the darn slides that they produce.
Take a risk. Stop operating out of fear. If your only reason for following a stupid system is that you might get in trouble if you don’t, then you probably do deserve to get in trouble. As you rise in an organization, risk rises — that’s why you get paid a risk premium. Earn it. Identify stupid parts of the system and change them.
Simplify. Evaluation mechanisms are heinously complicated. Let me suggest that they shouldn’t be more than ONE page long, and that the conversation should always outweigh the written part of the evaluation. Sure, there are times when complex processes are needed, but, folks, we’re not talking about manufacturing pharmaceuticals, we’re talking about an exceedingly simple process at its base: is the supervisor happy with the employee’s performance?
Offer choices. How awesome would it have been if my son could have sent in a musical composition about a certain subject instead of writing an essay? I know, I know, I’m in dreamland on this, at least a little bit. But in the workplace, surely we can offer work style choices that end up with employees being more effective.
One size does not fit all. When we try to judge one type of human by another type of human’s merits, we eliminate a whole lot of merit at our organizations. We need to quit it, even if colleges don’t.