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.
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
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.