The silliest appraisal feedback I've heard
And how we are punishing dependable, competent people for doing their jobs well
In March, Kapil Komireddi, journalist and author of the book Malevolent Republic, had this to say on Twitter:
I’m not interested in the politics here. I’m pointing out that our then government had prepared itself diligently and proactively, and yet almost none of us knew.
This obviously has a lot to do with social media’s present invasion into our political and personal lives, where even public servants feel the need to broadcast, perform a part, even if they are doing something ridiculously minor, like opening a bus stop.
We’ve come so far with this idea that the facade, the performance itself, has taken over, has become the whole point.
The administrative back-end work of organising the purchase, storage, and deployment of a million tamiflu tablets (or in the current situation vaccines or ventilators) is boring and not marketable on social media, so no one cares.
But putting up videos of trains transporting negligible oxygen stock, and boasting about API hits is exciting, so everyone does, even though these things mean and do nothing.
Cricket analogy alert.
There’s this long-held adage about wicketkeeping, that you only notice keepers when they are not doing well. Otherwise they are invisible, almost forgettable.
This is one of the truest things in a game full of truisms.
We all remember Pakistan’s Kamran Akmal, at times a very effective attacking batsman, but a tragedy as a keeper. Who remembers BJ Watling though, the current Kiwi gloveman?
He’s never top of mind because he is so good.
His competency makes no noise. It doesn’t need to.
In 2018, I was having a conversation with someone on my team about my expectations from her role. The team had not had a full time manager before, and had been shadow-managed by another division.
As I told her to concentrate on SEO, her strength and something we desperately needed to get better at, she said she wanted to do something else. I disagreed, I told her that if she played to her strengths, something neither me nor others in the team could do better, she was sure to grow.
And then she told me why.
At her previous appraisal, she had been told that she was not putting her work up on Workplace (the internal social network we had) or Slack, and therefore 'no one had heard of her or her work'.
So, she said, give me something else.
I was dumbfounded.
First, how could a manager from another team know the nuances of the work being done in this one?
Second, SEO is by definition not flashy work, it’s sometimes incredibly mundane but tremendously important drudgery. And no marketing team can afford to not take it seriously.
Third, most importantly and incredibly outrageous to me, was the 'I’ve not heard of you' feedback. It’s one of the silliest things I’ve ever heard in my career and I hope I never hear it ever again.
Is the expectation that she do her job well, or is the expectation that she spend time talking up herself and the great job she has done?
Marketing the team’s work internally is the manager’s job, not the team’s. That’s one of the reasons there is a manager.
And if you want your team to win a popularity contest, you should be hiring for Kardashians, not SEO analysts.
Whether we like it or not, we now live in a world where the display of work is given more attention than the work itself. A lot of rot in the way we work can be traced back to this idea, and some of the blame has to fall on internal social networks, LinkedIn (of course!) and appraisal processes.
Not all of it, though.
At times work is boring, monotonous, and takes time to do well. And the most important work, like getting supply chains to work or to get SEO right, is not sexy at all. And so in a world that moves fast and breaks things, we have given undue attention and rewards to the flashy, the immediate, and the noisy. Like a picture of a supply route that looks great and earns a lot of likes, but isn’t operational yet.
Except in a crisis, we need those supply chains to work. As we found out this year.
Do I know how to solve that problem?
No. It’s one of culture and systems, way beyond my ambit.
But I do know that I can solve a version of this in my teams and in the circles I work in.
I hope I am able to communicate why silence and diligence can be the hallmark of great, impactful work, and why we should encourage that kind of professionalism. I hope boring, foundational work is given the respect it deserves.
I hope that the people I work with understand this, and when they lead teams, they don’t ever tell someone who’s been working their ass off that silly line: 'I haven’t heard of you'.