Years ago, I was a young manager working for a large global financial services company. During my time there, the economy plummeted into a recession (sound familiar?). As a result, raises were few and far between. As a youthful and naive manager I had plenty of ambition and more than my fair share of luck. In fact, during my tenure, the organization went through several rounds of layoffs.  Somehow I survived, but in the midst of all of the chaos and slashing, all of my bosses were let go. When the dust had settled, I was the most senior person in my department. A scary thought. But I somehow held everything together and we didn’t miss a beat that year.

Then comes performance review time. In typical fashion, my boss asked me to first complete my self evaluation with the plan that she would then evaluate me separately and we would compare notes. After hours of analyzing myself and my performance, thoughtfully choosing each word and then second guessing myself, completing revision after revision, I finally completed my performance review. And not so bad if I do say so myself! I naturally had areas to improve (I wasn’t very organized nor was I particularly good at getting to the office first thing in the morning), but despite all of that, I had steadied the department together during a tough time. I gave myself a few pats on the back and got ready for the review.

The Conversation

As soon as the meeting started, it became clear to me that my manager had hardly looked at my review let alone do a review of me herself (that’s a whole other dysfunction… stay tuned). As we move through each category, she would make commentary on my self-assessment and if she agreed with my overall thoughts, she would sign off on it. And so it went, until we got to the category “Communication.” For that category, I gave myself a 5. If there is one thing I pride myself on, it is my ability to communicate effectively (after all, I teach upwards of 500 graduate students every year on that very topic – management and leadership communication in the workplace). I’m no slouch when it comes to communication. However, that 5 stopped my manager in her tracks. She looked at my score and slowly lifted her gaze towards me. After a long pause, she said, “you know, you are really good at communicating – both inside the office as well as with our many customers and clients. I can’t think of one thing you could be doing differently or better. No one in this organization deserves a 5 more than you, but I can’t give you a 5.” I looked at her for a few seconds in stunned silence.  I kept my composure long enough to force out a response, “I don’t understand. According to you, I’m a 5 in that area. So, what’s holding you back from giving me a 5?” She responded, “if I give you a 5 on this, I have to give you a raise. And there are strict guidelines in place that prevent us from giving anyone a raise right now. So, while you earned a 5 and you deserve a 5, you’ll have to settle for a 4. And that goes for any other 5’s we may encounter in your review.”

So, in essence, I ended up with a “meets expectations” review. Not because that’s what I earned, but because that was what I was permitted to receive (I suppose it would have been o.k. for me to receive much worse). I vowed in that moment, to never invest the same effort in a performance review until I knew up front what the politics were going into that conversation. Not only did I leave feeling de-motivated and unappreciated, I left with the belief that any extra effort I gave in the upcoming year would suffer the same fate – as one friend of mine calls it a “meets” (short for meets expectations). What was the point of working that hard when in the end, politics would simply assign me a “meets?” So, what can you do if you find yourself looking down the barrel of politics come performance review time?

Avoiding Politics as the Employee

Here are some good pre-performance review conversations you need to have with your manager:

  • Prior to filling out your performance review, ask your manager about any constraints regarding what you are permitted to receive (salary, scores, etc…). This will help you know where reality ends and politics begin.
  • Ask your manger if he or she has an issue with a member of his / her team “standing out” from the rest. Some managers will use the line “if I give you this score, then it will cause problems with everyone else.” Reminds me of the line from the movie The Incredibles “if everyone is special, than no one is.” Get a gauge if “meets” is the standard your manager likes to give… regardless.
  • Cut to the chase – if you prefer a more direct approach, ask your manager “is this performance review process here truly about performance or is it more of a political process that we have to go through every year? I’m just trying to get a gauge on how much personal investment I should make in the process. I don’t want to end up disappointed in the end.”

Avoiding Politics as the Manager

If you are the manager, here are some things you can do:

  • If you believe the performance review process in your organization really is a political exercise, DON’T PRETEND IT’S NOT. Pretending it is fair when it’s not will hurt your credibility as a manager. You would be better off telling each of your employees up front what he /she can expect, what constraints are in place, etc…
  • Given you have the time (and not 20+ employees), take each employee “out to lunch” and have a real and honest performance review. Politics always exist in the four walls of our workplace so leave work and really talk about what they accomplished and where they can improve. They will respect you for your honesty and your personal investment in them.

Don’t let politics get the best of what could be a powerful conversation. Be honest, real, and open – all the things that politicians hate – and you’ll win in the end.