Why Making Managers The Lynchpin of Performance Reviews is a Mistake

Early in my career I worked as a project managers at a tech company of sorts. While discussing why I was not getting the promotion I had applied and interviewed for, I was told something confounding "Dave, you identify problems to fix...managers don't like to fix problems" I sat back in my chair wondering "well what the hell do you do if making things better isn't one of them." Needless to say, I left that company shortly thereafter because status quo just isn't my thing.

Now I'm not saying that all managers avoid solving problems or improving the status quo.  But you have to admit, many managers probably wish people would just do their jobs and not rock the boat. Which is probably why I was not a great fit for most managers I've worked with. My personal mantra is "If you aren't rocking the boat, you're not paddling" and ...well...I paddle. Beside a lack of desire to challenge the status quo, I think there are a few other reasons backed by research that might suggest managers are not the best ones to trust with the sole responsibility of evaluating talent. 

They get it wrong...like A LOT

When it comes to people decisions, managers' track record is pretty bad. Like almost "multi-day weather forecast" bad. According to Gallup, companies pick the wrong people to promote 82% of the time. And a recent Harvard Business Review article highlighted research that said that nearly half of the people who participate in a High Potential or Accelerated Leadership program within a company, should not have been in the program at all. So suffice to say, they've got a bad track record of picking leadership talent.

They don't like leading people

What makes it worse is they really don't want the job, at least not the leading people part. A 2011 study by Barret-Kohler revealed that 68% of your managers (thats more than 2/3rds) don't like managing people. That seems like a big chunk. Personally, I am much better at the things I enjoy; for the rest of the things I need to do, I do enough to stay in the middle. So essentially, your managers are managing you and your people into the sea of mediocrity. 

They didn't want to be leaders in the first place

When DDI asked for the top 2 reasons why they took a management role, the top 4 were ALL about self gain:

  • more money = 50%
  • develop myself = 39%
  • only way to advance my career = 33%
  • desire to make a bigger contribution = 33% 

Barely squeaking into the top 5 (of only 6 choices) was "I want to lead others" at 23%. That's right, less than 1/4 of managers actually wanted to lead others, the rest are solely in it for themselves and their own advancement. Which isn't a huge deal until you consider the number 1 job for a manager is to lead her or his team to better results.

They have significant blind spots

In the same study as above, nearly all (89%) of managers rated themselves significantly higher than their actual skill level in at least one leadership area. Despite 57% of managers regretting their promotion, and 42% reporting that they don't feel they know what it takes to lead successfully, 87% gave themselves a good or excellent rating in doing it.

They are biased

To be fair, we are all biased. Which is why having a single perspective (especially considering all the things above) as the trusted source of identifying and addressing performance is wrought with judgement bias. Affinity bias is the most common and unrealized bias that can affect how managers evaluate talent. We have a tendency to like people who are most similar to us - so a variety of things can outweigh actual performance leading to a whole host of discrepancies in areas you don't want there to be (gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, age, etc.) 

What is needed

Managers have a tough job. Many are doing the best they can with little to no support from their leaders, formal development, or access to training. What I suggest is that maybe trusting a single person (or even managers as a collective since the majority are subject to all of the things listed above) to be the evaluators of your talent isn't the most effective route.

What is needed is a truly holistic approach when it comes to identifying people who are great at what they do, people who need help, and people who others would follow. Being great at what you do should not be a qualification for doing something completely unrelated (as one new manager put it "I was unfamiliar with the skill set of being a manager".) There is information all around you in your organization.

Act as your own consultant

When hired, consultants start collecting lots of information and talk to people...all people, to collect data you've either long ignored or have not taken the time to collect. From focus groups, surveys, document analysis, to one-on-one conversations, organizations can get a much better picture of their talent. You don't need a consultant to do any of this, you just need to ask and listen to the people who will be impacted by your decisions on whom to promote.

If you are at all worried about engagement or retention, promoting the wrong person should be of great concern. Leverage more than just managers when identifying leaders and ask everyone who will be impacted. Your bottom line will thank you for it. 

Dave NeedhamComment