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Insights in Age and Work – the lies people tell in appraisals

Insights in Age and Work – the lies people tell in appraisals

  • 28 Feb, 2017
  • Geoff Pearman
  • Appraisals, Older Workers, Performance Reviews,

I heard it again this last week. In fact so many mature aged workers have now confessed it is time to out the secret. Many older employees are lying their way through performance review interviews.

The first time it happened I was running a workshop with a groups of managers who I knew and respected. A senior manager who had just had her annual performance appraisal spilled the beans and told us how disconnected the process was from her life and career stage needs. But there was a clear expectation that she should play the game, set goals, identify deficits where she required training etc. Yes she loved her work, wanted to do a good job and still wanted to grow in her job, BUT she wasn’t into setting career goals, she was not aspiring for a more senior role and she did not want to go on executive development or succession programmes. She did want to grow in her current role and be part of a peer learning group. She played the game.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article The Performance Management Revolution the authors suggest there are 3 business imperatives leading companies to drop appraisals. I am going to suggest a 4th. Firstly they identified a return to a focus on people development and fast feedback, secondly the need to move away from systems that were designed to assess and hold people accountable for past performance and thirdly to move from an individual to a team focus.

“All three reasons for dropping annual appraisals argue for a system that more closely follows the natural cycle of work. Ideally, conversations between managers and employees occur when projects finish, milestones are reached, challenges pop up, and so forth—allowing people to solve problems in current performance while also developing skills for the future. At most companies, managers take the lead in setting near-term goals, and employees drive career conversations throughout the year.”

I am going to suggest a fourth reason for an overhaul. The current model is not working for the growing number of mature workers in your workforce.

We now recognise that one of the impacts of increased longevity is the emergence of a new life stage somewhere between the ages of 50 to 70ish.  Reach the age of 50 and you could be working for another 20 years, so the big question becomes, what are my options, more of the same or something different? What motivates me might be different to when I was starting out or even mid career.

“We have not added decades to life expectancy by simply extending old age: instead we have opened up a new space partway through the life course, a second and different kind of adulthood that precedes old age, and as a result every stage of life is undergoing change.”  Mary Catherine Bateson

But do the things that motivated you in your career thus far continue to motivate you? Harvard Professor Shoshana  Zuboff reflects. “The first half of life is about compulsion; the second about choice. Nature compels physical and cognitive maturation through early adulthood. Then the need to earn a place in society kicks in; education career, family, status, recognition, recognition and achievement. Once these were over and done with it used to be time to die. Now decades stretch out ahead. For many the old incentives no longer bite. They find themselves uneasy.”

To return to performance reviews. Most systems are designed with what what Zubroff calls the “first half” in mind. They assume we are aspirational, we want to get ahead, we are motivated by goals (stretch goals). A shift often happens from aspirational drivers to significance, from compulsion and achievement to making a difference and wanting to leave a legacy.

I often put an alternative scenario to older workers when they talk about lying through their performance reviews.  I ask  “how would you respond if I was to ask you; over the next period what is the contribution you would like to make and secondly how could you and we make that the best it could be?” I asked that of the person I was talking to last week. Her face lit up, she was engaged and wanted to tell me about how she enjoyed her job, she could see things she would like to do to improve work processes and contribute and knew what support she needed. In the next breath she said “and you didn’t use the goal word or try to find areas where I needed training”.

Mary was a participant in a focus group discussion. We got talking about performance appraisals. She confessed to having just lied her way through hers. Her goal was to retire over the next 2 years, not something she was going to have on her review form or even disclose at this stage. I asked her the same 2 questions. Her response was revealing. She became emotional,  tears welling up and she told us that the contribution she really wanted to make was to pass on her knowledge to others, but no one has asked.  Then she told us that what would help was to learn how to mentor. What a different outcome.

New Zealand has one of the highest participation rates of people over the age of 55 in the workforce. Australia’s participation rate is growing. There is a clear need to rethink the types of conversations we have in the workplace.

The Harvard professors concluded in their article that “Performance appraisals wouldn’t be the least popular practice in business, as they’re widely believed to be, if something weren’t fundamentally wrong with them.” I would add, and older employees wouldn’t be confessing to lying to their managers and supervisors if they were having respectful conversations that valued them.

Contact us if you would like to discuss this article and how we might assist further.

Image: Nothofagus gunnii photographed at Mount Field National Park Tasmania

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