You don’t have to take it any more

When work isn't fair

When work isn’t fair

“It’s just not fair.”

That’s the phrase I hear every time someone gets a performance review that isn’t based on their actual performance. I’ve uttered it myself.

In the vast majority of cases, it’s not just a denial of an unpleasant fact. Sometimes, you simply have a bad boss. Or you have a new boss with very different expectations from your old one. Or perhaps he simply needed to fill a quota for poor performers and you were the easiest one to pick on.

After your unfair review, you may have responded with anger or anxiety or even tears. But you don’t have to be a victim any more. You can do something to take control.

The Lottery

"Performance Management"

“Performance Management”

In 1941, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story entitled “The Lottery in Babylon” in which all activities – your occupation, your success, even your death – were dictated by a lottery run by “the Company”:

“…every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings of lots, which were carried out in the labyrinths of the gods every seventy nights and which determined every man’s fate until the next exercise. The consequences were incalculable. A happy drawing might motivate his elevation to the council of wizards or his condemnation to the custody of an enemy (notorious or intimate)…An adverse drawing might mean mutilation, a varied infamy, death.”

Performance reviews have become a lottery. In order for the reviews to be useful for personal development or for equitable distribution of pay, there must be continuity of both the manager and the objectives. But the pace of reorganizations and changing priorities have quickened, rendering management by objectives useless for all but the simplest jobs. The conceptual underpinnings of most performance management systems have crumbled yet we blindly keep using them rather than confront the effort of fundamentally redesigning them.

It isn’t fair

The patterns are clear and consistent. One of the more common ones, for example, is “The Re-org”. Your firm re-organizes and combines two groups, each with their own manager. One of them is given responsibility for the newly-merged teams. The losing manager seeks a position elsewhere and his former team, now in a disadvantaged state, is subject to the Lottery. 

Will my new boss have different objectives? Different expectations? 

Who will he pick when he has to force rank us?

What will happen to the raise or promotion I was promised?

A handful of other similar patterns all lead to the same kinds of questions. Borges’ “Lottery” is thought to be an allegory, but he could have easily been describing modern management practices:

“Under the beneficent influence of the Company, our customs have become thoroughly impregnated with chance.”

You don’t have to take it any more 

"I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more!"

“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more!”

You should be mad as hell. To think that your success – the assessment of your value to your firm, your compensation, the opportunities available to you – could all be determined by a single person who may barely know you? Whose loyalties – to himself and his close associates – may be in gross conflict with what’s right and fair for you?

What makes it sting even more is that the lottery is cast as an objective system, a righteous necessity for which, as Borges writes, “participation became mandatory for all but the elite”. If the stakes weren’t so high it might be funny. But it’s not funny. Your self-worth and the well-being of you and your family should not be subject to a lottery. You deserve better than that.

To take control you need to work out loud. That means making your work visible and narrating your work in progress. By doing so, you can shape your reputation, build your own purposeful network, and get access to opportunities without depending on your manager to be the middleman.

It’s a lot tougher for a boss to give you an underserved bad review when your work – and the feedback on it throughout the year – is positive and public. Bullies hate the sunlight. When you work out loud your boss will go pick on someone else.

Life may not always be fair, but you can increase the odds. Get started now before it’s too late.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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10 Responses to You don’t have to take it any more

  1. Cornelia Levy-Bencheton says:

    John, you have managed to find yet another great reason for working out loud! And I completely agree that the networking generated by working out loud does discourage unfairness.

    It does so by creating a powerful protective shield, a community of supporters, around a person that wards off unfair attack(s). The shield of supporters can come to the person’s defense in time of need and not only discourage but completely prevent an attack. The attacker has got to realize that his/her aggression would be against the many and not just against the one attacked. Thus, working out loud can be credited with a multiplier effect against unfair aggression. The best defense becomes (instead of a good offense) good working out loud.

    Of course, the community of supporters can also proactively promote a person who might be in need of advancement, praise, visibility and the like, as it works as a defense/offense play.

  2. John says:

    Great writing John. The bad, quota filling boss rings so true. I wish I read this 3 years ago. Keep the posts coming.

  3. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    A great post John and for many reading it I’m sure they will recognise much of what you say as something they may have experienced or perhaps witnessed. Everyone deserves better than a bad boss who has treated them unfairly! Certainly my own experience is that those managers most resistant to the introduction of internal social tools are those who fear their loss of control over those they manage and the areas they see as their own. What is more threatening than an effective voice from below?
    But should one’s possible success at working out loud be at the cost of “someone else” – a fellow colleague that a bullying boss may turn to instead?
    Indeed my hope would be that a culture of social tools, openness and working out loud would slowly render such bosses incapable of exercising any bullying or unfair behaviour towards anyone? But as you say, life may not always be fair but let’s try and increase the odds for many – it’s never too late is it?

  4. Guy Lipman says:

    Thanks for this post – I could certainly relate to it – I’ve never enjoyed being judged by one person, particularly when their interests weren’t aligned with the interests of me, the company, or the people I was hired to help.

    The other thing I don’t like about ‘working for the judgement of one person’ is that it assumes one path to success – impressing your boss, getting a good review, getting a promotion. In fact, these days, there are so many possible paths, and working out loud is a great way of discovering paths that are even more right for you than the promotion that might be all that your boss has to offer.

  5. What happens when you ‘work out loud’ and stack ranking is still the mode of performance review? What if working out loud doesn’t actually matter? (devil’s advocate, clearly)

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Dan. That’s a great question, especially as many organizations will keep their ratings curves even as more people learn how to work out loud.

      Two things happen. First, with your current boss, you have more material for your review. It’s really like the best 360 degree review you could have as feedback on your work is public and real-time throughout the year.

      Second, if your boss ignores that public feedback, you have a purposeful network you’ll have developed as a result of working out loud that you can tap into.

      I see both at work. Probably more of the latter. That is, too often the managers will rate people however they want (regardless of public feedback). But those same employees went on to get great opportunities due to other managers seeing their work (and the feedback).

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