Better than Great, Or Just So-So?

Published: Mar 10, 2009

 Workplace Issues       

It's bad enough that Barb Taylor hurt her back recently. To makematters worse, the 30-year-old marketing manager from Boston was supposedto write her self-evaluation and submit it to her boss by Friday. Unlikethe five-page evaluation form she used to have to fill out at her oldcompany, she was asked to write this self-evaluation essay style. "It'smuch, much harder when it's a blank page," she says.

Though she doesn't seem to get bent out shape, Ms. Taylor hasunderstandably been procrastinating -- but she has a plan. First, she'llenumerate her accomplishments. There was that period between March and Junelast year, for example, when she completed a detailed "situation analysis"(something not all of us can do well). She'll then write about herweaknesses, like the need to improve her project-management skills. (Way togo! Some of us don't even know what project-management skills are.)

She'll then point out her strengths. She's good at conducting marketresearch (good one!) and at speaking to people (some of us have a policyagainst that).

But she stalls when pressed for more. "This is where it gets verypainful," she says. The whole process "is an opportunity to remind my bossof the value I bring to the company. However, there is that fear that I'mnot bringing any."

The idea of this workplace ritual that is gaining popularity is to helpmanagers and employees level with each other, applaud achievements, set newgoals and identify job-training needs. But these self-evaluations haveinstead been put on the list of annualized torments, ranking up there withtaxes and dental probes. There are, after all, an infinite number of waysto self-incriminate.

Ostensibly, you rate yourself on a scale from one to five, usually inpreparation for a follow-up interview. But let's be frank. You really endup portraying yourself in one of two ways: A) Self-flagellating lummox dumbenough to enumerate weaknesses that can be used against you at a laterdate. B) Self-aggrandizing egomaniac who thinks no means yes, insults are aform of flattery -- and you're pretty good-looking to boot.

It shouldn't have to be this way. God knows, most bosses don't have aclue what their employees actually do, so this should be a chance to fillthem in. That's what Ralph McGreevy, executive vice president of a landlordassociation in the Cleveland area, thinks. The hard-charging 48-year-oldbelieves that if you don't share your strengths with bosses "there's nochance that they will appreciate you."

Mr. McGreevy says his boss told him he could be better at listening topeople. "I'm a horrible listener," he concedes at one point. But when askedif his boss had a valid point, he says, "Absolutely not."

That kind of disconnect is one reason companies themselves don't alwayslike self-appraisals. Many other factors make the reports unreliable andcontroversial management tools. Beyond high self-esteem contributing tograde inflation, studies also show that older employees don't takecriticism well and females don't inflate as much as males, according toLeanne Atwater, professor of management at Arizona State UniversityWest.

Marshall Goldsmith, founding director of the Alliance for StrategicLeadership, explains the folly. Because 85% of us think we're in the top25% of our peer group, at least six in 10 of us are obviously "delusional"about our abilities. On the other hand, says Mr. Goldsmith, havingdelusions is often an ingredient for success.

Prof. Atwater explains that over-raters "tend to make more money and getmore promotions." But they also have lower performance, she adds, and onlyget so far before their careers are derailed.

Uh-oh. But what's the alternative for us blow-hards? Honesty about ourreal plans?

Question: What are your career goals?

Answer: Work a lot less, get paid a lot more, retire early inTuscany.

A former Wall Street analyst, a veteran of several investment banks whoknows the value of that most ludicrous of achievements -- performing"better than expected" -- advises us to list easy goals and just make themsound hard. That way next year you can say you "achieved 100% of goals"last year.

All year long, she would collect kudos as ammo, dumping them intofolders she named "Success" and "Yay." The latter was for praise fromcolleagues. "Getting messages from my boss's boss -- or anyone else herespected and was also slightly intimidated by -- was even better," sheconfides.

Brownie points, we all know, come from personally saving a few pennies."Point out in the review -- not in writing! -- that the rest of the teamstayed at the Four Seasons and flew American," the analyst says. Then, wipeyour fingerprints from the knives you stuck in everyone's backs.

In the lingo of self-evaluation, weaknesses should be limned asstrengths in drag. "Sometimes, I work just too darn hard," says MikeRodman, assistant communications director at Harvard Law School, by way ofexample.

Lawyers, in fact, may be among the biggest fans of the performanceappraisal. It can shield against wrongful-termination lawsuits.

In that case, maybe we should do what seems to work so well for chiefexecutives: Take the Fifth.