Discover more from Meditations on Life, Technology, Leadership, and Everything
The myth of objectivity
We use process to make things fair and objective, but is it really working?
In every company above a certain size, in a few months, will take place an annual ritual that nobody can escape: the performance and promotion process.
This is the bane of any manager, the worst time of the year: long hours to collect feedback, write reviews, attend meetings, fight with other managers, and disappoint your people.
But all of this process is needed to select the best people, we do this for the greater good of the company, right? Right?
The theater of objectivity
For the ones in the crowd that have never been in a dreaded “performance calibration meeting”. Picture this:
In the days before the meeting each manager has prepared some summary of the performance of their direct reports, and mind you, this in itself is a special skill that managers develop, and each organization has its unique quirks.
As you sit in meeting rooms for interminable hours, managers go through each person one by one and suggest a performance score. There is a debate that can become spicy if any manager dares to suggest to lower score! The discussions can sometimes spiral into debates about what constitutes "good performance" across the organization. And yes, things can even take a philosophical turn—trust me…
Now, I lied to you before. Not everybody is discussed in the meeting, and the experienced manager will try to hide, hoping to avoid any scrutiny. Although, achieving that feat is only possible for the best of our kind.
And finally, the managers leave the room exhausted, with the "calibrated list of performance scores".
But wait, things get even more ridiculous when we start talking about promotions. Brace yourself, now we try to predict the future of a person's career based on a distilled version of their past standardized performance.
It's closer to witchcraft than management.
"But why?" one might wonder. These meetings, they're not just for show, right?
No of course not! They exist to maintain objectivity, to ensure that every individual is treated fairly, and that the company's decisions are rooted in reason and impartiality.
Or at least this is what they say.
Is all this process achieving the objective?
All this supposed objectivity masks the inner workings of those meetings because there are people in those rooms with their relationships, biases, and preferences.
And I ask you, dear reader, if you were on the receiving side of this process, do you feel all those processes are fair?
My answer, from inside the machine, is no. Those processes give the illusion of fairness. You can find “strategy guides” for being promoted in certain famous companies, people work with their manager to make sure that they can present themselves in a way that those large committees like.
And at the end of the day, managers aren’t accountable for any of this, for the good or the bad, the decision is taken away from them and diluted in a group decision that can go anywhere.
Often when I discuss this topic with other fellow managers, the attitude is “this process is imperfect, but what’s the alternative?”
Admit that this process is subjective
If all of this is a performance, a ruse, let’s get rid of all of it. Let’s finally admit that this is a subjective process and see how we can go about it.
My humble proposal is to give the leader of each unit a budget they can use for their staff. This budget will be proportional to the business contribution of their unit and can be used to hire/promote/reward the people in the unit. Be explicit and transparent about the decision.
That’s it, that’s all you do.
There are some obvious counterarguments:
How do you decide how much budget is fair to give? I think this is the larger issue to solve. Many companies don’t have good monitoring of the business performance of each unit, I suggest we spend the time we save in meetings to solve this problem first. But this problem is solvable I am sure that any good CFO would be glad to help.
People will leave if they work in an area that has little budget! For me, this is a feature, not a bug. Companies need to be deliberate in how they invest and need a way to incentivize great people to work on the most pressing business problems. This is a way to align incentives.
What if you have a terrible manager who is biased? Then finally they don’t get away with it. You can easily measure churn and complaints, this time without the shield of the group decision.
This way each unit/department will have a different bar for talent. In my experience, this is the case anyway, but you need to make this explicit and, for example, allow managers to interview people before a transfer, to assess for themselves.
This is a rough sketch of an idea I had bouncing in my mind for a while, I would love to hear your thoughts and if you agree or not with my point of view.