Needs Improvement

It’s performance evaluation season at work. On Thursday, I delivered three evaluations. I actually enjoy delivering performance evaluations and – even more – thinking about goals for the next year.

At the end of each conversation, I asked the team member, How was that? It’s the mark of a successful manager when the reply is, No surprises. If you’re doing your job as a manager, your team gets feedback real-time throughout the year and the performance discussion doesn’t surprise them with new feedback, it reminds them of feedback they’ve already received and helps them put it in perspective. I was pleased to be able to remind each of my team members of a time last year when they received feedback and adjusted their approach as a result – that’s a quality that marks successful team members.

Then it was time to think about my own goals for 2021 and that is where I had an aha moment. I spent 30 years at a company where performance evaluations were focused on corrective action – what are all the things that you do wrong that you need to stop doing – on making you less of something that you are, instead of helping you become more of something you want to be. At one point, I had a discussion with the VP of HR that I didn’t know how to handle and, flustered, I made a mistake and handled it badly. That mistake ended up on my performance evaluations for at least 5 years and spanned two different supervisors until, finally, taking my life in my hands, I told my newest supervisor that I would just like a performance review that didn’t tell me to stop doing something I had done once, 5 years previously.

So it was a huge surprise this year when I received my evaluation at the new company where I’m working. It included one piece of feedback: they want me to do more of something. Luckily, it’s something I had already made up my mind to work on and had reinforced it with my team.

But then I caught myself living in the past. I mapped out my goals for the year and, when I moved on to personal development areas, I spiraled into self-judgement: I should do this, I should stop doing that, I should ask my colleagues for feedback, oh god, what if they say they hate me, oh I totally suck, why can’t I be more like… Until I finally caught myself and asked, What are you doing? Where did this come from?

I generally think about performance goals in two buckets: goals that reflect what you’re doing for the company (complete this project, reduce this cost, etc.); and goals that reflect how you want to enhance your professional toolkit (learn a new skill that you can apply in your current role and that you can take with you to another position). So why was I focused on self-judgement goals, goals about making me less than what I am in some way?

Because I was living in the past.

This happens to us all the time, if not with things at work, with family things. Behaviors, thought patterns, fears become habits, and those habits become so normal that we stop recognizing them.

And that can be dangerous.

When we lack awareness of our habitual behaviors, we lose the ability to see how they may be inappropriate to new situations that we face. Our cat, for example, is a rescue and, while she was living on the street, she developed the survival skill of licking food off of plastic wrappers, which evolved into a habit of eating plastic. She has been off the streets for over 7 years but we have to be rigorous about not leaving plastic bags around where she can get them because otherwise she will eat them. And not just food bags, bags that have nothing to do with food, like dry cleaning bags. Our house must be plastic bag free at all times, because she is unable to unlearn her habit of eating plastic.

Here’s another one: when I was a little girl, I spent some time around my paternal grandfather. Not a lot of time, but enough time that, even at a young age, I knew he was dangerous and unpredictable. He was an alcoholic and, later in life, was diagnosed with dementia which made his abuse worse. He beat his own children when they were kids, sexually assaulted some of them, and applied frequent, loud, verbal abuse to us grandkids when we were with him. Something about that left me afraid of men shouting. Even when men like my husband or a brother in law – who my brain knows would never behave like my grandfather – shout because the handle of our much-loved and very expensive refrigerator breaks off in their hand or they drop something on their toe, I become paralyzed. Panic hormones flood my body and I freeze up. I am generally good in an emergency – shutting off department store escalators when children become trapped, keeping my cool when a robber sticks a gun in my ribs – but even a quietly angry man will send me into an amygdala hijack and I stop making sense.

Because I am aware of this habit, when it kicks in, I take action by deep breathing, meditation, or even just removing myself from the room until they’ve calmed down. For a long time, I tried to make them not-angry by telling them to calm down or asking them not to shout or applying reflective listening – which, you will know if you have ever been angry, just makes you angrier. Then I realized that the problem wasn’t their anger – it usually wasn’t anger directed at me – the problem was how I was reacting to the anger. So now I’m trying these other techniques and that seems to work for me, for now.

Our habits sneak up on us. This “fix-it” performance review habit certainly snuck up on me. I try not to do that with my team members (although now I am reflecting on our goal-setting conversations in a new light) but I am clearly doing it to myself.

So the only self-improvement goal this year is: be kind to myself and accept myself for who I am.

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