Performance Management Blindspot

Reflecting on the recent Google’s perf season, I came up with a framing that I decided to capture here. If you’re grappling with the last cycle’s feedback, it may hopefully add some clarity to your next steps. And if by any chance you’re developing a performance management system for your organization, it might yield some insights on your design.

As I was reflecting on the problem space, two distinct forces caught my eye. One of them is the force of the rubric, and the other – the force of the value. The performance management processes that I am most familiar with all share the same trait: there’s a rubric by which the employee is evaluated. The rubric defines some properties of individual performance, usually broken to categories for easier evaluation. The employee’s actions and outcomes are compared against the rubric to determine their level of performance. In effect, the rubric defines the metric of the individual performance, and is usually connected to compensation. The force of the rubric emerges as employees try to conform to the rubric to improve their levels of compensation.

On the other hand, the force of the value is a bit more challenging to capture as a metric, but easier to feel intuitively. Does an employee actively provide value to the organization? Or are they just sticking around, employing a minimum share of their capacity? Though “actively providing value” can be vague, it is fairly easy to discern the the force of the value emerging in pretty much any team. For example, there are individuals whose mere presence on any team seems to improve its collective velocity. Teams clump around those people and become, well, teams. Some individuals might not serve as glue of teams, but rather generate insights and framings that change entirely how a problem is viewed, becoming more possible to solve. Some have a gift for holding a clear-eyed picture of a long-term strategy when everyone else on the team is lost in the minutiae. Value comes in many shapes, but while working with others, we can almost always intuitively tell when it’s there. When organizations speak of “attracting or retaining talent,” they are manifesting the force of the value.

It is a performance management system designer’s dream that the two forces are perfectly aligned. Unfortunately, this is just a dream. To explore what happens in the cracks between the two, let’s draw a two-by-two. On the horizontal axis, we have the force of the value, and we’ll loosely designate one extreme as “high value” and the other as “low value.” On the vertical, we’ll place the force of the rubric, with “fits the rubric” and “doesn’t fit the rubric” as opposites. With the four quadrants in place, let’s explore them one by one.

The top-right quadrant is the easiest: the organization’s recognition of value is spot on. Most bits of value that the individual provides fit into the rubric. We are living the dream. Moving counterclockwise, we make a stop at the “you need to shape up” quadrant. Here, the employee is not providing value and the rubric accurately reflects that. Again, this is working as intended. Here, a bad rating or tough feedback means that the employee needs to decide: “will I change what I am doing to provide more value to my organization?” If the answer is “yes,” the rubric handily provides the checklist of things to improve.

Continuing our tour of the space, things get funky in the next, bottom-left quadrant. The individual doesn’t fit the rubric or provide value to the organization. For example, suppose that I am working in an engineering organization, yet spend most of my time growing tomatoes in my garden. Tomatoes are glorious, but unless there’s some business connection (perhaps this a tomato gardening app team?), the value/rubric fit is low. At this point, the employee likely needs to consider a different kind of change. Do they start conforming to the rubric? Or are they perhaps being called toward another career?

The last, bottom-right quadrant is the most interesting one. The value is clearly high, but the employee’s work does not conform to the rubric. This is the performance management blindspot. The organization can’t see the value provided by the individual it employs. It might sense it in other ways – like the team falling apart after this individual leaves it– but it can’t map it to the rubric. For the individual, this is the least fun place to be. Here’s how it usually feels: “I can clearly see that I am doing great work, and everybody around me sees that I am doing great work, but the perf signals I get are kind of meh, with feedback that is at best incoherent or worse, harmful to the actual work I am doing.” Peeps stuck in this quadrant find themselves torn. The question they ask themselves is: “how do I change what I do to fit into the rubric while not clobbering the value I already provide?” Some are stuck in the “retention limbo,” where the organization is trying to keep them despite seemingly not knowing what to do with them. Some are asked to conform to the rubric or else. Some are deemed “tomato gardeners” and quietly managed out, to the team’s chagrin. One of my friends suffered this fate recently, despite being probably the only person on the team who deeply understood the long-term arc of their strategy. It’s not a great outcome for the team, either. Invisible value is something that is usually only grasped long after it’s lost – and by then, it’s too late.

If you have a suspicion that you’re in that quadrant, it might be worth having a conversation with your manager and checking if they see the same thing. If they do, then they might be able to help navigate the limbo. Performance management blindspot is a real thing, and most managers that I know are aware of it. Otherwise, it might be time to look for another place. But most of all, hang in there. It sucks to be stuck in this spot. You are amazing and your gifts are precious – even if this particular organization can’t see it.

6 thoughts on “Performance Management Blindspot”

  1. > Moving counterclockwise, we make a stop at the “you need to shape up” quadrant. Here, the employee is not providing value and the rubric accurately reflects that.

    Not clear how rubric accurately reflects, that person in “shape up” quadrant not providing value. According to quadrant position – these are people, who have high rubric fit.

    1. Hi Val! So happy to see you engage and share your thoughts. You’re right, this quadrant wasn’t written up as thoroughly as the others. Would it be useful to draw a distinction by putting it contrast with the “tomato gardening” quadrant?

  2. I also feel dubious about the upper-left quadrant, although I don’t know if my reasons are the same as Val’s; maybe the 2×2 is a little ill-defined? I at first expected to be addressing the case of somebody who seems to satisfy the rubric, but doesn’t provide a lot of value to the organisation.

    Perhaps concrete examples drawn around an L6: somebody who writes important design docs – which don’t bring clarity to the issues under discussion? who designs APIs which are widely adopted – and easily misused?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Tom! I wonder if a good way to frame it would be to examine a difference in intentions. If my stated intention is to satisfy an L6 rubric, and I am failing at that, I am in upper-left quadrant. Here, my intention is to write important design docs and to design APIs, but I am not getting it done. If my stated intention is to do something different (like gardening tomatoes), then I am in lower-left quadrant. What do you think of that framing?

  3. Maybe I’m still not expressing myself clearly?

    At bureaucratised tech companies, performance management for non-promotion-candidates can appear to be an exercise in checking boxes in order to not get fired. It seems to me that it’s possible for an employee to meet the rubric – produce docs, design code, communicate with other teams – but not provide value to the company because they don’t do so *well*.

    I’ve certainly seen this multiple times over the years at our shared tech company, and I might very well have been in this position. The employee *fits* the rubric, but the employee needs to shape up; the rubric has a blind spot in that it doesn’t recognise the employee’s lack of value. I’d have thought this situation would be in the top left, but whether in top left or bottom left quadrant I don’t think your prose describes this category. So I’m wrestling with the categorisation.

    1. Love the nuance you’re uncovering. The first paragraph of your comment (the “At bureaucratised tech companies…” one) describes my understanding of the top-left quadrant quite nicely.

      Then, there’s an interesting twist. I hear you say “fits the rubric, but needs to shape up”, this is also aligned with my understanding. If I am in this situation, I will get one a lower rating — my signal to “shape up.” Did I get that right?

      But then, you mention a “blind spot that it doesn’t recognize lack of value”, and I am a bit lost. How might that happen? Is it the situation when I need to shape up, but I still get a high rating?

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