The last few weeks have been pretty intense.
The end of the financial year is always a busy time for a manager and one of the main reasons is because it's annual review season.
Now, I wrote about how annual reviews work at Atlassian last week, but that post was pretty clinical and detached.
All data, no experience.
Which means it's only half the picture, because the actual process of building out an annual review for someone, of ingesting all of their accomplishments and failures over the course of an entire year, and then turning that into useful feedback, is long and stressful.
At least it is for me.
There'll Be Much To-And-Froing
Regardless of how good you think your memory is, you owe it to the people that you're responsible for to gather as much information as possible about their activities over the year.
There are no shortcuts here, but preparation can make this job a lot easier. I do quarterly check-ins with all of my people, and the documentation from that is a great starting point for the annual review. I also do bi-weekly one-on-ones, and make extensive notes, which then act as a source of information with a much finer resolution.
Even in the face of the preparation mentioned above, I still feel like I need to do additional research come the end of the year and gather everything together into one big old lump of data.
And ingest it.
But that's not even the hard part! Reading is easy.
The hard part is synthesising that raw information into meaningful feedback that highlights both strengths and areas for improvement, and does it in such a way that feels both fair and appropriate to the recipient.
I like to know that I've done something properly, so after synthesising everything together I immediately start questioning whether or not I'm coming to the right conclusions.
Of course, the reality is that there are no objectively correct conclusions when it comes to feedback, as it is very subjective, but I still think there is value in that second-guessing stage, stressful though it might be.
Because annual reviews deserve all of the due diligence that you can muster.
And My Heart Will Be Woeing
When doing an annual review, it's important to me that I don't overlook anything.
It can be devastating to someone's morale to have put a lot of effort into something and then to have that thing completely minimised during the review process. That sort of thing can have all kinds of long-term effects, ranging from reduced engagement and motivation to cynicism and bitterness.
As a manager, you can't underestimate the effect that you can have on someone.
Personally, I'm afraid that I'm going to miss something and come to a conclusion that just isn't true, then feed that conclusion into feedback about how I want the person to operate in the future.
Imagine getting a piece of feedback that your manager wants you to be better at X, but you already thought you were doing a great job at X.
Best case scenario is that you will challenge your manager and then have a good discussion about things. Hopefully you have enough evidence to correct the conclusion, and hopefully your manager is flexible enough to accept that.
The worst-case scenario, one that I fear is more common, is that you don't feel comfortable challenging and the misunderstanding festers and seethes, mutating into something much more dangerous.
I like to think that everyone I'm responsible for is happy to challenge me, but I don't know for sure.
So, I'm afraid of coming to the wrong conclusions, and that makes annual reviews a pretty stressful process.
When My Employees Are Near
It's kind of pointless to acknowledge that something is stressful and then not do anything about it.
So I've got some things I want to do that I think will help.
The first relates to both information gathering and synthesis.
One of the mistakes I made this time was to gather information quarterly, but do it in a completely different format to the actual annual review. Thus, I got a lot of practice with doing informal quarterly check-ins, and no practice with actually evaluating people against the feedback dimensions until right at the end of the year.
So, over the course of the next year I'm going to try and do a pseudo annual review for everyone once a quarter. After all, if you want to get better at something, it's best to do it more often.
I don't think I'll go so far as to give them quarterly ratings, but I'll definitely aim to follow the same process overall, and supply written feedback appropriately.
The second thing I want to try, is to ensure that I'm establishing an environment where challenging me is the norm, so that if I do overlook something or make a mistake in the review process, people will call me on it.
That's not to say that I don't already encourage that sort of environment, but I want to double down on it over the course of this next year, just to be sure.
Of course, I'm not going to be some sort of push-over. I'll still have strong opinions of my own, I just want to make sure that people are happy to speak up and that when they do, I listen closely.
Then all I have to do is change the paralysis that I feel about coming to the wrong conclusions, which I'm sure will be simple and not hard at all.
It's The Most, Stressiest Time Of The Year
At the end of the day, I want to do right by the people that I'm responsible for, so even though the process of doing annual reviews is time-consuming and stressful, it's a cost that I gladly pay.
Of course, that statement is predicated on there being value in the feedback that I'm producing, and this is where things get a bit hazy.
Are the people who receive my feedback better off? Are they happier? More effective? More satisfied?
I don't really know for certain, but I do know that I really appreciate getting feedback myself, even if it isn't perfect. I love learning more about what other people see when they look at me.
So, I hold on to that thought with the hope that other people feel the same, and that they will tell me if they think my feedback is completely off the mark.
It's hard to tell if you're making a difference as a manager.
It's a little bit like hurtling down a dark tunnel occasionally getting glimpses of things that are happening that might relate to something you did months ago and could potentially represent victories.
Or they could just be random events that have literally nothing to do with you.
Still, no reason not to do your best anyway.