What do you focus on – activities or results?



Many of you would have had your performance review 1-1 recently, and most likely you are disappointed about how it went. There are many reasons why you would be disappointed right now, I talked about it in my post last year about this – Performance Review – The Day After.

If you want to understand why this disappointment happens (and maybe every year) and what you can do about it, read on. Continue reading

My Independence – End of a beginning

This is the final post in the series I started a few years back when I left US and landed in India (see first partsecond part and third part). It has been an inordinately long time since I wrote last in this series, and it must be attributed to my lack of perspective on things that were unfolding in my journey. It took me time to make sense of some things!

In my last post 20 months back, I had outlined a few options around rejigging my portfolio and I had to choose one or more:

  1. Continue to stay 1-person army and try to become high-end (thereby increasing my per-hour revenue)
  2. Hire and grow Palash into a consulting practice
  3. Rejig my portfolio by moving from people-intensive offering to technology-intensive offering

It turns out that I had not accounted for vagaries of my mind! I ended up making a choice that was not on the list by any stretch of imagination.  Continue reading

Workplace Reality #9: What leaders say can be very different than what they mean

This post is part of the series on 9 Realities of Modern Workplace.

In this post, we talk about Reality #9: “What leaders say can be very different than what they mean“. This reality should be interpreted as the gap between speech and intent, or speech and action (because intent is what is acted upon).

Why speech-action gap

There are 3 primary reasons this happens.

Justifying hard-to-justify acts

Leaders, like everyone else, need to justify their acts, esp. if they do things that seem odd or unfair to an employee or a group. For example, when a critical employee wants to leave, a leader may offer him/her disproportionately (and unfairly) high salary to keep and meet the organization goals, at least for the short-term. When being asked about this situation, they may say things which will cause speech-action gap.

Handling information flow restriction

Information flow in an organization is restricted by design – things a leader knows aren’t always things he/she can say. In these situations, leader may end up saying things which aren’t backed up by action or subsequent events. For example, the company may be looking to acquire a company to replace their existing product. However, the leader may not want to rock the boat by telling the employees working on existing product about this, even though he will be acting with this knowledge. This will result in a speech-action gap.

Lack of self-awareness

Sometimes, the leader doesn’t realize that his speech doesn’t match his action. For example, managers know that micro-managing is a bad idea, but some of the managers don’t realize that their own style is that of micro-managing (in the eyes of their team members at least). This is due to lack of self-awareness.

How to deal with speech-action gap

Just relying on the words spoken by the leader can mislead you. For example, the leader may ask employees to come forward and air their grievances about the new policy. However, when you do bring it up, the leader ends up pushing really hard to justify the policy. Following what Ralph Waldo Emerson said is a great advice to deal with this situation: “What you do is so loud in my ears that I cannot hear what you say” – only listen to what the leader does, ignore (or at least don’t give much importance to) what they say. For example, if the leader doesn’t answer candidly to questions in meetings, don’t get misled when he talks about transparency and information sharing.

This concludes this long-running series on 9 realities of modern workplace. I look forward to your feedback on this post and the series.

Image: freedigitalphotos.net

Workplace Reality #8: There are lots of star performers who are jerks, or vice-versa

This post is part of the series on 9 Realities of Modern Workplace.

In this post, we talk about Reality #8: “There are lots of star performers who are jerks, or vice-versa“.

If you have worked for a few years in industry, you may have faced one or both of these:

  1. You meet a co-worker who impresses you with their intellect and ability, only to find out in later interactions that they are extremely hard to work with and impossible to handle
  2. You get mad at some co-worker because he behaves like a jerk, and find out later that actually he/she is the start performer of the team

Why Jerks thrive in organizations

In Straight from the Gut, Jack Welch’s landmark book, he talks about performance and attitude. This can be visualized in a 2×2 like this:

  • Green Box – Straightforward. Awesome talent, managers should do what it takes to keep them and groom them.
  • Orange Box – Straightforward. Poor talent, get rid of them ASAP.
  • Yellow Box – Tricky. Should you reward the person for good behavior and invest in them to improve performance, or get rid of them for lack of performance. Jack Welch recommends the former.
  • Red Box – Very tricky. Should you keep rewarding them for high performance and pardon the bad attitude, or penalize them for bad attitude. Jack Welch recommends getting rid of such people right away.

Red Box is where Jerks live.

Most organizations and managers don’t have the guts to fire a high performer for bad attitude, even when there is enough evidence to suggest that loss to team/org productivity and morale due to bad attitudes outweighs the results delivered by the person.

By having singular focus on performance, at the cost of attitude focus, organizations foster Red Box behavior – such performers get promoted, and they get a chance to ‘impact’ larger group of people. Promotion serves as a reinforcement that what they are doing (including bad attitude) is good for their career, and so they do more of it, and others are encouraged to follow their footsteps.

Jerks thrive.

Dealing with the reality

It is fairly easy to identify such ‘red box’ candidates:

  1. You keep getting into arguments with a certain employee and your manager sides with that person all the time.
  2. You keep hearing complaints about a certain employee through your informal network, while the person is a start performer based on official records.

Whether they are really hard to work with or not, best way is to work with them and find out!

If you are in such a company, it is important to have a plan to deal with such employees.

  1. Avoid – If possible, stay away from projects that involve these people you identify as ‘red box’.
  2. Build a working relationship – It is possible to have a working relationship with people who may be hard to work with otherwise. It may be because you are a high performer in your own right, or you may have a quality that person needs to be successful, etc. However, this will solve only your problem, if you are one of those people who get mad at people when they behave badly with others, this will not work for you.
  3. Be the crusader – Take on the person. This may be career suicide in some cases, so not everyone should try it. But if you hold your personal values high enough, and feel obliged to the organization to do the best you can, you should be willing to call out bad attitude from the person. This will result in conflict (and having good conflict resolution skills will be important), but it will help the organization tremendously in the long run. Easier said than done!

However, most important thing, and the focus of this series, is to remember that organizations will have jerks, even when you fail to understand why. It will help you if you understand why, and it will help you the most if you learn to deal with them.

In the next post, we will discuss the final reality, the Reality #9: “What leaders say can be very different than what they mean“. Stay tuned.

Image: freedigitalphotos.net

Workplace Reality #7: Organizations are full of leaders and managers who are incompetent and painful

This post is part of the series on 9 Realities of Modern Workplace.

In this post, we talk about Reality #7: “Organizations are full of leaders and managers who are incompetent and painful“.

When I wrote the original post, one of my friends called up to protest against it, he felt this comment was too harsh. I have no doubt that he is a good manager. However, I can’t say the same for large majority of leaders and managers you see at any workplace. For the purposes of this discussion, a leader or a manager is one who has people, project or technology responsibilities – people manager, tech lead, project managers, etc. Again, for our discussion, we define incompetence as the lack of demonstrated ability to do lead or manage people, project and technology, and we call it painful when the lead or manager gets in the way of doing things rather than helping with it. Hence, what I am saying is this: a large number of leaders/managers in organizations lack ability to lead or manager, and usually get in the way rather than help in doing things.

Different Success Drivers for individual contributors and leaders

When I teach the open course on new leadership, I point out the fact that there is huge difference between success drivers of an individual contributor and a leader.

Individual Contributor Leader
What kind of work environment do you operate in? Certain and Predictable Uncertain and Ambiguous
How do you become more effective? Self-learning Coaching and mentoring others
What kind of problems do you solve more often? Domain-specific/Technical Business, Personnel, Process
How do you perform well? Personal Excellence Excellence of others

You solve different types of problems, you work in a different environment, and perhaps the most significant of all, your effectiveness and performance depend on others doing well. When an individual contributor gets promoted to leadership role, they are expected to understand this different and adapt themselves to it. Unfortunately, it is not an easy change to make for many individuals (especially when mentorship and training for new leaders is patchy in most organizations) and many don’t change, trying to apply their individual contributor world view to leadership, and slowly evolve into a mediocre leader.

Performance Management Systems don’t measure leadership well

Another factor that aggravates the situation and fosters poor leadership is the bias of performance review systems. Most such systems are geared towards measuring visible indicators of what a person did, in an area that consists of hard skills, because these are easier to measure. It is easier to see the results produced by an individual writing good code to solve problems, much harder to see the results of mentoring by a manager, or design inputs by a tech lead that made the individual perform so well. This results in very poor (and sometimes missing) measures of leadership performance. There are significant differences between being a people manager and being a technical lead (or a senior individual contributor) in terms of performance measurement (which I dealt with in this post), but for current discussion, we can ignore that.

My central argument is this: very few organizations do a good job of identifying, developing and measuring the performance of their leadership talent, and hence the paucity of good leaders and managers in most organizations, and the reality statement above.

Dealing with the reality

Given this reality, what do you do with it? Two things:

  • Identify competency level of your leader: Observe the gap between what the leader says and what the leader does. Action speaks louder than words. When you are in doubt, always believe what you interpret from actions.
  • Find mentors in the organization (or outside): Having good mentor(s) is one of the best ways of building your career effectively. This can also offset some of the effects of mediocre leadership if you are exposed to it.

In the next post, we will discuss the Reality #8: “There are lots of star performers who are jerks, or vice-versa“. Stay tuned.

Image: freedigitalphotos.net

Workplace Reality #6: The new hire can replace you any day if your only strength is technology

This post is part of the series on 9 Realities of Modern Workplace.

In this post, we talk about Reality #6: “The new hire can replace you any day if your only strength is technology“. Of course, this is an exaggeration to catch your attention, but surprisingly close to the truth!

Employees become irreplaceable (or close to it) within an organization when they attain expertise in a much-needed competency. Take a look at a few examples of competencies:

  • Programming in a particular language
  • Negotiating and influencing others
  • Communication and public speaking
  • Selling to businesses
  • Leading a high-performance team

In case of some competencies like programming, you can become an expert if you put in lots of hours every day just programming. If you have spent 4-5 hours a day programming for last 2-3 years, a new hire who has been programming 14 hours a day in his college years can be a better expert. This is the reason you see so young and talent dancers, singers and musicians – they have put in lots of hard work at an early age.

There are 2 categories of competencies:

  • Skill-based Competency: Proficiency level attained in these competencies completely depends on skills you master on your own. Proficiency directly depends on the time spent in practicing the skill. For example, a great programmer will spend thousands of hours writing code at home or college and be highly proficient programmer on the first day of his work. The 10000-hour rule will be more applicable here.
  • Experience-based Competency: Proficiency level attained in these competencies partly depends on skills you master. It also depends on the environment you practice these skills in – people, manager, organization, culture, geography, etc. For example, you can improve your communication skills and become good at giving feedback. However, you need to also practice giving feedback to (and receiving feedback from) from different people around you, and in different org cultures and geographies, you can’t be highly proficient. Just putting number of hours is not enough in these competencies.

Technology strength is a skill-based competency and hence the reality statement above.

Building proficiency in an experience-based competency gives you sustained competitive advantage in a workplace and should always be preferred to a skill-based competency advantage which is a short-term advantage.

Some points are worth keeping in mind when choosing competencies to build your strength in:

  • Impact of competency definition: Some competencies may feel like skill-based but they may actually be experience-based at higher proficiency levels. For example, a good programmer has to be a good problem solver for the given business domain in order to be most effective. While programming and even problem-solving are skill-based, being an ‘effective problem solver in a given domain’ requires experiencing (and solving) real problems in the domain, which depends on the environment you have been operating in. So it is important to define them clearly and in an experience-based competency manner.
  • Impact of environment change: Experience-based competency may not remain a sustainable advantage if your environment changes. For example, someone who has spent 6 years in a structured, process-driven organization may become very skillful at achieve results using well-defined process (which is experience-based competency). If they then join a small company with little defined process, they may produce very little results because environment is now unstructured. So it is important to know what environment you need for your experience-based competency to work well.
  • Impact of enabling environments: Some environments can help you learn faster than others. For example, in a startup you can learn a lot about new product creation very quickly, while a big company may take years to teach you that (if ever). Number of years of experience can be a misleading indicator of expertise. A ‘less-experienced’ person can trump a ‘more-experienced’ one even in an experience-based competency if they had different environments to learn in. So it is important to seek enabling environments.

In the next post, we will discuss the Reality #7: “Organizations are full of leaders and managers who are incompetent and painful“. Stay tuned.

Image: freedigitalphotos.net

Workplace Reality #5: There is always a stack ranking and a bell curve of performance rating

This post is part of the series on 9 Realities of Modern Workplace.

In this post, we talk about Reality #5: “There is always a stack ranking and a bell curve of performance rating, even in companies that claim they don’t have these“.

Let’s define the terms first.

Stack ranking is ordering employees in decreasing order of their ‘value’ to the organization. Typically, this ‘value’ is measured by performance during the review period, but it can incorporate other factors like potential, yrs. of experience so far, etc. (see why this is a bad or a good thing)

Bell Curve is force-fitting the rating of employees to a certain distribution: X% of employees have 4 or above, Y% have 3 or above, Z% have 2 or above, etc. (see below for math, or Forbes for why this might be wrong way of looking at employees).

Both of these are applied to an identified group of employees, mostly by grouping 2-3 nearby job levels into one group.

Let’s take an example of a group of 10 people (by the way, 10 is too small a sample size to apply these concepts, this is just for illustration).

Name Performance Rating (out of 5) Stack Rank
N1 4 2
N2 3 9
N3 5 3
N4 5 1
N5 4 4
N6 3 5
N7 4 7
N8 3 8
N9 2 10
N10 4 6

Note couple of things:

  1. It is not necessary that highest performance rating corresponds to highest stack ranking. Performance rating reflects performance against defined goals for the period. Stack Rank reflects ‘value’, which may be more than just performance in the given year (a recent hire who got 4 because he had only 4 months to show his performance may be the best bet for the company and hence can be ranked ahead of a senior guy who also got 4, who in turn may be ranked ahead of an average guy who somehow delivered exceptional performance this year and got a 5).
  2. In this sample, 20% got 5, 40% got 4, 30% got 3, and 10% got 2. Put another way, assuming 4 and above is excellent performance, 60% of the sample produced excellent results. Statistically speaking, this number is lop-sided – excellent performances are usually not so abundant.

As discussed in Reality #3, performance rating systems in most organizations are broken, which means #1 will be similarly broken.

According to the mathematics behind bell curve, the distribution in #2 above (if it was a large enough sample size) is an anomaly, usually created because managers are not strict enough in their evaluation. Hence managers are asked to change their rating to ‘fit the curve’, usually like this: 20% top performers, 70% average performers, 10% bottom performers, which makes a broken rating process more messed up and subjective.

Why would an organization want to have a stack ranking?

Looking from organization’s perspective, reason is simple to understand. As discussed in Reality #4, an organization will pay the minimum it needs to pay to keep you and will want to get the maximum out of you. Stack ranking is a good way to identify the employees who provide best ROI to the organization. It makes sense to identify them, reward them, and make best use of them.

Whether the above exercise happens in a formal way or not, organizations need this information and so managers will always keep such a sheet handy which tells them about performance rating and stack ranking of employees so that they can do their investments in employees accordingly. This is natural.

Implications of Stack Ranking and Bell Curve

Here are some of the implications that should be obvious now:

Outcome Reason
You have done great work, expect a 5 out of 5 performance rating, but end up with a 4. Company decided they can’t have so many people with 5 rating, and your rating was downgraded in the name of ‘curve fitting’.
Your manager says, “I wanted to give you 5, but management decided otherwise” In the meeting where the rating rationalization is done, your manager (or his manager who was representing you) was unable to convince others about your rating.
You get a 4 but the person who got 3 gets more rewards than you Your company rewards favor the stack rank more than performance rating

Dealing with the reality

Good thing is that there is enough buzz in the air that these are bad thingsMicrosoft recently got rid of both rating and stack ranking, Adobe got rid of its annual performance review system. However, you still need to understand the rationale and deal with them, because as I mentioned above, even when these are formally gone, they exist informally, and so they impact you. Best way to deal with these is to work closely with your manager (or manager’s manager) to make sure you understand where you are in that ‘valuable employees’ list. Also, it is more important to observe the behavior, just listening to your manager may not help much. Watch for these:

  1. When a new/interesting project comes, are you asked to work on it?
  2. When you ask for a reassignment to an interesting project, how hard it is to convince the decision-maker?
  3. How much do you have to haggle with your manager for bonuses/raises?
  4. How many of your ideas/thoughts are entertained or accepted by your manager?

If you think you are not high enough in that ‘valuable employee’ list, you need to change something.

In the next post, we will discuss the Reality #6: “The new hire can replace you any day if your only strength is technology“. Stay tuned.

Maths behind bell curve

A theory called Central Limit Theorem suggests that if you take random observations from a large enough sample size, their average values, when plotted on a graph, will resemble a bell curve (normal distribution). Applied in performance rating context, it means that with a large enough number of employees in a group (large sample size), their performance rating will be a normal distribution and produce a bell curve.

Image: freedigitalphotos.net

Workplace Reality #4: Promotions and Bonuses reflect market conditions, not capabilities, mostly

This post is part of the series on 9 Realities of Modern Workplace.

In this post, we talk about Reality #4: “Promotions and bonuses are determined more by available budget and market conditions, less by your capabilities or your performance“.

Compensation Planning

An organization exists for the primary purpose of maximizing shareholder value. This means that what the organization pays to its employees depend on 2 conditions:

  1. Organization’s ability to pay, this year and subsequent years – this depends on profitability and other factors.
  2. Market price – this depends on how much other companies pay for the talent you need

Annual (financial) plan for a company decides the amount of money (usually as a percentage of their revenue) allocated for bonuses and salary hikes, based on these 2 factors, usually picking the minimum of these 2 numbers.

Compensation Logic

Once this amount is decided, say 3% of revenue, this money is supposed to be distributed among the employees, using some reasonable logic. Here are 2 tricky situations that companies navigate when applying their logic:

  1. When giving bonus and raise as a percentage of existing salary, those who are already paid more, will get more (but % wise it may feel less to them). A 3% raise of a senior guy can be equivalent to 20% raise for a junior one. Organizations then try to decide whether to make a junior guy very happy or a senior guy just a little more satisfied.
  2. When bonus and raise are made contingent upon performance rating, Reality #3 can hit you. If performance review process doesn’t generate good and fair rating, this can result in seemingly unfair bonuses and raises.

Most organizations apply both these logic (one portion of money is allocated to #1, another to #2). In addition, given that organizations value extrinsic motivators so much, motivational factors are incorporated when designing this logic (“Everyone will get raise proportional to performance rating, except when they are attrition risk, in which case we give an attrition-risk-linked portion of raise to avoid that risk“).

Implications of Compensation Planning and Logic

Here are some unexpected outcomes from compensation planning and logic:

Outcome Reason
Everyone worked very hard this year and expected a good raise, but the raise was extremely low Company’s revenues were down and so condition #1 above (organization’s ability to pay) became the driving condition
You worked regular hours, no pressures, you thought year was very light on work, and the raise for that year was exceptionally good Market had lots of demand for talent of your time and so condition #2 above (market price) became the driving condition
You are a senior manager doing very well in the company, and are expecting a good hike this year but you get only 4%, much less than your expectation of 15% A few junior employees in your division were attrition risk and company decided to give them a hefty raise, which meant not enough money for your raise %, since your base salary is so high
You are a junior developer and expect a substantial raise because you did very well last year, but got just the regular 15% One of the senior managers had to be placated with a high raise and that didn’t leave enough money on the table.
Your performance rating is very high this year and you expect a very high raise. Doesn’t happen. Total allocation for raises this time was very low so your individual raise was low too.

Dealing with the Reality

It is very hard for most people to deal with this reality – this impacts money they get, and it skews all of our judgment about the workplace. However, the best way to deal with the reality is to understand how these numbers are derived for your organization (if you sincerely try to understand the process in your org by asking around, you will get good information), and give the company the benefit of doubt: this is a very complex challenge and they are trying to do the best they can (in most cases).

Good thing is that over a period of time (say 2-3 review cycles), many of the issues mentioned above will average out – so you may get very poor raise one time though you worked hard, but you may get a much better raise and a promotion, without doing anything extra in next review cycle. If they don’t average out (or are not heading towards it), and you don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be getting more than you do (based on market conditions and your company’s financial conditions), this may become a fairness question that you need to deal with – maybe your manager or your org is not being fair with you. Till then, you should spend your energy in making yourself more valuable in the industry and more learned so that companies crave for your skills and abilities.

In the next post, we will discuss the Reality #5: “There is always a stack ranking and a bell curve of performance rating, even in companies that claim they don’t have these“. Stay tuned.

Image: freedigitalphotos.net

Workplace Reality #3: Most performance review systems are broken and useless

This post is part of the series on 9 Realities of Modern Workplace.

In this post, we talk about Reality #3: “Most performance review systems are broken and useless“.

I have written many posts on performance and performance appraisals before (managing performance, annual review, self-appraisal) and so have others (Forbes, Wall Street Journal, payscale). Most have been critical of the performance appraisal systems. It is very hard to find articles that talk about good systems; most such articles talk about what it should be (Forbes, Gallup). So the statement above shouldn’t feel very shocking. However, I have very specific reason to use the words broken and useless that I want to explain. Hopefully this will also explain why organizations behave in a certain way in some cases.

Performance Review System

Performance review is the process by which an employee’s performance is evaluated. Organizations use this process to make sure they are getting good returns on their investment in a particular employee. Idea is actually quite good: rate the employees based on their performance, use the rating to rank the employees, and then compensate them according to the rank. Tell poor performers to improve or get out, to be replaced by better performers. This will maximize the ROI on people investment.

However, this makes certain assumptions:

  1. It is possible to objectively rate (based on performance measurements) employees across the organization
  2. It is possible to compare rating (or performance) of any 2 people and rank them relatively
  3. Employees will agree to linking compensation to value creation
  4. There is always a steady supply of talent available who will perform better at the same compensation

Unfortunately, none of these assumptions hold true in today’s organizations.

  • #1 requires rating is based on objective metrics and is done by able managers. Both of these are hard to come by.
  • #2 requires quantification of every performance which is hard. How do you compare the performance of a business analyst vs. a sales person?
  • #3 makes the compensation fluctuate widely which employees can’t handle
  • #4 depends on external factors and always comes with a time lag which hampers quick results

Broken and Useless

System is intended to adjust compensation and rewards every year to align with performance of the individual. This is expected to create incentives for high performance. Since above assumptions don’t hold true, rating and ranking results are inaccurate. This means compensation and rewards are not aligned with performance all the time. Instead of incentivizing value creation, it may create unhappy employees and thus hamper performance.

System is also intended to give feedback so that employees can improve their performance. For the reasons cited above, this feedback is not useful at all, and can be harmful in some cases.

Dealing with the reality

Most people use performance review system outcome as a way to measure their own worth, and their career growth. If they get a raise or get promoted, they think they are growing, and they are worth more. If they get no raise or promotion, they think they are not growing or are worthless for the company (my earlier post evaluating your performance).

It is critical to wean yourself away from the myth that performance review outcomes are a good indicator of your career growth and personal worth.

If you can do that, following statements will make sense:

  1. Performance rating your manager gives you may have little correlation with your performance
  2. Bonus, salary increment, rewards that you get may have little correlation with your performance rating
  3. Performance rating may have little correlation with your worth to this or another company

If you can adjust yourself to live with above statements, you will realize that you can deal with your workplace much better.

In the next post, we will discuss the Reality #4: “Promotions and bonuses are determined more by available budget and market conditions, less by your capabilities or your performance“. Stay tuned.

Caveat: Above post exaggerates the situation by assuming that all parts of the system are broken. Most companies will have some parts broken and not all, so your personal experience with your performance review system will be better than the above description. However, being ready for the above scenario serves you well.

Image: freedigitalphotos.net