• John Bowie

Turn 'em Loose! #8: Performance


I’ve led (and been led by) creative teams for over 25 years. This means there have been over 25 times in my career when I seriously considered quitting my job. If you’ve led a creative team for several years, you probably know what I’m talking about.

The potentially job-terminating event begins with a meeting of all managers in the division. In preparation for the meeting, each manager has rank-ordered and assigned a number to each of their employees based on their “performance” over the past year – ranging from a “5” for outstanding performance to a “1” for unsatisfactory performance (i.e., for employees who will be placed on a performance improvement plan, laid off, or fired).

A bloody battle ensues in which the contributions of marketers are compared to call center agents, technical writers are ranked against software engineers, and UX designers are evaluated against product managers. To ensure conflict, each performance category has a “target” percentage assigned to it: typically 15% for 5s and 4s, 15% for 2s and 1s, and 70% for the middling 3s.

Managers come armed with evidence of stellar results that their superstars have achieved, and hide in their back pockets a list of their employees who may need to be sacrificed to a lower level to meet the category quotas. Top performers from the previous year tend to stay at the top, but sometimes, after metaphorically comparing Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Harriet Tubman as candidates for the 5s category, Einstein is demoted to a 4 in order to meet the percentages. Moving up requires extraordinary achievement, although the precise definition of that level of achievement is a mystery. A lot of times it’s about which employees are “visible” to the most managers.

Over the course of the following week, employees are summoned to appear before the all-knowing judge (i.e., the creative team’s manager) to find out which number the entirety of their past year’s work has been reduced to. Usually the employee has completed a self-evaluation beforehand describing their results across a dozen or so performance criteria, and the manager searches for ways to restate what the employee has said in different words. Sometimes the manager is required to include “opportunities for growth” in the feedback (i.e., negative comments) to balance out the praise for accomplishments.

Maybe you’ve had this experience; I hope that you haven’t. I can tell you that, in many of my management jobs across multiple companies, this is the way things worked. Not always, but more often than not. To me, it’s hard to imagine a better way to demotivate employees at the start of a new fiscal year.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. You could, for example, give every member of your team a 5 rating (I did). Or, if your boss won’t let you get away with that, you can explain to your teammates during your meeting that policy requires you to assign them a number but that the numbers are meaningless and don’t reflect your assessment of their results.

Instead of calling your employees into a conference room to deliver the performance review, you could take them out to lunch. And instead of rehashing their past performance (including the requisite negative “development opportunity” comments), you could talk about the future: the challenges and opportunities your department will face in the coming year. Talk about their career goals and have a conversation about how their goals can contribute to the team’s success. Ask what opportunities you can give them to support their interests. Express your confidence in their ability to make the upcoming year their best year ever. And always end the meeting by thanking them for all that they’ve done and all that they are about to do.

After all, you, as their manager, only have your job because of them.

This approach may violate HR policies, but you can do this with the best interests of the company in mind: inspiring your team will produce much better performance results in the coming year than rating and judging their past performance. Isn’t that in the best interests of the company?

Of all the things you can do as a manager of a creative team, motivating employees through performance celebrations, appreciation, and future envisioning is one of the most important tools you have for turning ‘em loose!

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