Re-inventing self after an Appraisal? – Learn from the stricken snake

The Appraisal Pandora envelope brings with it many plagues – “Meets expectations”, “Extend probation / Defer promotion”. Those are the early pests that fly in your face, the moment you step into the claustrophobic and asphyxiating cabin of your boss.

The unkindest bite of all, though, is delivered by “Needs to improve on people skills”. Words fail one. Your entire water-cooler and office party life flashes in front of your eyes for a mind-numbing moment. What does it mean?

Whatever it is, you fall into concurrence because EMIs on house, car, children’s education; the liability list jolts you out of your reflections. You nod meekly and surrender abjectly. Better the white flag than the pink-slip, you realize. You take the feedback to heart. You strive hard to change. You invest in “How to..”, “Joy @ “2 minute..”, “Soup and Cheese..” and other delirium inducing series. You buy roses to strew around, pick up the bill where earlier it was the toothpick, at best, you picked up. You suppress your nausea and raise your eyebrows in appreciation, at the ghastly family pictures on the softboard of your colleague. You greet everyone, right from the security guard to the CEO’s driver. You gag your conscience and compliment the secretary even on her worst hair-day. The works.

6 months later (or an year later, depending on how often your organization wants to inflict this on you), you will be sitting in the same cabin, across the same table and same face, with the same words slashing your heart “Needs to improve on people skills”.

I learnt the futility of such revolving-door-reinvention, the day my grandmother told me this story! Am I any wiser? Now that’s a territory, I ask you strictly not to trespass into! Read the story and may be YOU will benefit.

Master Wai and monk Waimudu, after cursing the do-good villagers (ref my earlier entry “Bless the bounders…” ), took leave from them to proceed towards their next destination. The good villagers that they were, warned the master-monk duo of the perilous jungle that lay ahead and suggested an alternate path, which was a tad bit longer. Wai smiling, proceeded at a faster pace towards the straight and narrow, dangerous as it may be.

The path was covered with grass, indicating it wasn’t used in a long time. The jungle itself appeared serene and bountiful, with fruit laden trees; brooks with cool, clear and sweet water and what not. Waimudu keeping pace with his master was taking the beauty of the jungle in, along with a juicy bunch of wild strawberries, wondering what it was that kept the villagers off this nature’s boon. And the answer to that appeared the next moment and lay right in the middle of their path.

A huge, hissing, snarling, slithery being with glowering eyes. Waimudu, was just about weighing his chances of being welcomed into the celestial damsels’ abode, when Master Wai proceeded to address the snake thus.

Master Wai (MW): How are you today, my friend?

Hissing, Snarling, Slithery Snake (HSSS):
Hungry and ready to sink my fangs in trespassers like you (Proceeding ominously with hood raised)

MW: You won’t dare do that with me. Here, sample this – “De-motion (Author: An effective mantra, if ever when used on lowly minions of all hues, that hampers further progress)

HSSS stopped in its tracks petrified, its limbless supine body feeling that more than ever. Finding tongue (the other one, that comes in handy precisely in such situations when you misuse one) it said

HSSS: Please forgive my ignorance. I spoke loosely knowing not how powerful you are

MW: It’s ok. Why do you want to unnecessarily scare poor folks away from enjoying this largesse of nature; which belongs to all. Don’t scare them henceforth unnecessarily and I will ensure status-quo-ante

HSSS: Please, I won’t. I promise to mend my ways. Thanks (feeling the cold blood circulate once again).

Mouthing platitudes profusely, HSSS crawled away to its little hole in the ground, shedding its hitherto scales of meanness and aggression.

After a few months of spreading wisdom in their journey, Master Wai and Monk Waimudu on their way back happened to pass through the same but different jungle – Path wide and well-worn, de-fruited trees, huge stumps whose trunks ended up warming many a cold wintery nights or cook a delicious meal, brooks muddied. Mourning over the ravages the once beautiful jungle had suffered, Master Wai turned his head towards a thick bush alongside the path, from whence were proceeding heart-wrenching gasps and hisses, that of a dying being.

Going around, he found the once proud HSSS in a pitiable and pathetic condition. Huge wounds, oozing blood and feasted upon by flies, were all over its once shining mane. The eyes lost their luster, the once long stretched body coiled listlessly with nary a sign of life, save a slow and erratic heaving. MW ran a soothing hand over the body of the stricken snake and asked it what has brought it to this state.

(Author: The following narrative is pieced together using some creative license, as it would be impossible for a snake on its last limbs to be able to reconstruct so lucidly such a long narrative)

HSSS (gasping and in a sepulchral tone): I followed your advice master…and stopped hissing n biting n scaring the one or two brave souls who in the initial days have wandered this way. Slowly the word spread, and the trickle of passersby turned into a torrent of travelers; caravans, families on bullock carts, wood-cutters, farmers..everyone who had or did have a stake in this forest. At first they were still trepidations about what I would do. Then it started with a pesky kid throwing a lump of mud at me.

Encouraged by the lack of response, they then started throwing stones of all makes, from a distance and then over a period ventured to poke every square inch of my body with sharp wooden pikes. And then took immense pleasure in beating me with them. Just yesterday, two kids and their uncle stomped on me taking turns for over an hour as a part of some elaborate ritual. Now here I am waiting for deliverance. Where did I go wrong?

MW: My dear friend. I asked you not to bite them and scare them without reason. That doesn’t mean you lose your natural instincts and stop hissing and keeping them at bay all together! Here drink this potion and you will regain your strength and form. Live a long life with this lesson learnt.

The story ends there, and I don’t know what happened next. Whether the snake heeded the advice second time and made hiss-story or whether the emboldened junta using longer sticks and bigger stones snuffed the life out of it, once they saw it rearing its hood again. But not being any wiser than the snake after its first appraisal session; and not having a wise Master Wai around to help me read between the lines and nurse me back to strength after initial set-backs; I still play the fool and keep reinventing myself never endingly.

Here is to hoping at least some of you profit from my granny’s story!

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19 Comments Add yours

  1. Prashant says:

    Master Wai: “…That doesn’t mean you lose your natural instincts …”

    Arun: that phrase in your story is a key take-away IMHO. After all all the research, modeling, data analysis, consultant/expert opinions et al, it still boils down to tuning into one’s own instinct.

    Great read and as usual, great turn of the phrase (laughed at the way you described Demotion as a magic mantra!). Keep it coming,
    cheers
    PS

  2. Shiv Muttoo says:

    Instead of taking the boss’s word seriously, his feedback needs to be neatly hurled out of the window. Vitriolic remarks are indicative of insecurity. Take heart and go for the jugular…

  3. ivak99 says:

    Thanks Arianne, a good perspective on US market. India is no different, but just to set the record straight, i only look at the ugly underbelly, else i guess a significant number of Indian companies and their top management must be good, going by the newspaper reports and hearsay!
    @Munish, i feel slighted at your Chetan Bhagat comparision but this time I guess will let it pass.
    Lavendar, if senior management buy-in is a million dollar enterprise, that particular category will contribute close to 38% of India’s GDP (a conservative Yestimate).
    Yeah Sunil, i subscribe to your HR from another galaxy line fully. BlackHole is my bet; nothing comes out of it ever.
    Thanks Anupama for the Idiots reference, the song on my lips is “gimme a raise, gimme a raise” and it has nothing to do with things that will bring blush to the cheek of modesty!
    Rizwan, your philosophy is equally admirable; except that the person who died may feel better too, if what we did we did before his premature meeting with his maker.
    Abhik, bingo on the LOPI. A sense of deja’vu on your first scenario; the second is still a work of fiction 🙂
    Never get into the credibility aspect, Anita, you have more chances finding the horn of a unicorn 🙂

  4. anita noronha says:

    Well said. Though I’m a wee big confused.

    Will not go into credibility of appraisals or existence of nepotism/favoritism etc.
    I’ve experienced the fact that people who took feedback & toed the line, have always been looked after. When they have put their ‘feet/foot down’ they have been respected & given what they wanted. On the other end are people like me, who listened to advice, toed the line, stood up to the boss or his/her ‘chaapu’ at times, only to be ‘fed to the lions’!

    There is some internal process by which all this selective mis-handling happens!! It defies all logic, Chankya-isms and folklore.

    So I think when the boss needs a break appraisals are done…they have some fun & strengthen their beliefs on whom to keep and whom to chuck.

  5. Abhik says:

    well, here are some of my observations from my experiences: I call it the “LOPI” model for PA.

    LOPI stands for Leadership, Ownership, Pro-activeness and Initiative.

    The use of this model stands on two pillars called “high potential” and “expectation”. It works in a dialogue in the following way:

    Case 1: Boss wants to screw the small guy:
    Boss: give me one instance where u demonstrated “L” ( ie leadership in the LOPI model).
    Small guy: Blah blah blah
    Boss: since u have huge potential and because the expectation from this role is very high, ur L ( leadership) is not L enough….
    Small guy: @#$% ( in his mind).
    Else:
    Boss: give me one instance where u exibited O ( ownership from LOPI)
    small guy: blah blah blah…
    Boss: it is not “O” enough ( same logic as above)

    Case 2: Boss wants to give a hike, small guy fits into his scheme of things.

    Boss : give me one instance where u exibited L
    small guy: blah blah blah ( same shit as above)
    Boss: u have delivered beyond expectation proving ur great potential. U qualify for the great rating
    small guy: all smiles ( pleased with himself)

    Note :It works the same way for all LOPI

    Offer:If any of u can escape LOPI in your PA…ever….please let me know. I will give some cash prize to you and your manager. 🙂

    Enjoy life….work for the joy of working , not for LOPI.

  6. Rizwan Tanveer says:

    Your story is a admirable reality. If a person changes his attitude and turns to be a good and trust worthy, helpful etc. all this problems will arise.

    It is a good start and has a very deep meaning and leaves a impact on the reader.

    And it also shows the problem faced by freshers like the snake who has stopped to even hiss. And in this story the monk being a spritual person must be more hurt than the snake as he was responsible for the mistakes of others.

    wether in social life, professional life teacher makes us learn good deeds. but when we adopt them practically and come across this situation then our teacher’s and parent’s may feel the same pain like the monk.

    “It makes us feel better that we can do something for the person who has died.”

    Regards
    Rizwan

  7. sunil says:

    Arun, in 12 years of appraisals I have never had one reasonable appraisal conversation. It is always the manager wanting to show that he is the BSD and that there is something fundamentally broken in you like – needs to improve ability to handle top management, needs to carry the fat ass, pompous, ass licking sales guy better for the morale of the unit, blah, blah. If I spoke the way some of my managers have spoken to me to my 6 year old daughter, she will ask me to shut up in under 30 seconds and speak sense.

    And the HR department unfortunately comes from a different galaxy. They have training programs that say appraisal has to be in the context of defined goals. Line managers just don’t register this. They go by perceptions – theirs and the people they want to please. So it is a rare celestial event when the ideal appraisal method aligns with a line managers’ behavior. Until then more beer, cholesterol lowering pills, obsessive-compulsive consumerism and all such behavior only crazed employees can exhibit will prevail.

  8. Anupama says:

    Damn good story! You have a way with words!

    Your view of performance appraisals reminds me of the song from 3 Idiots – “gimme some sunshine…jeene do, jeene do” It’s like as if bosses are conspiring to stop you from getting more money!

    I think its all a hog wash. EE or ME, one has to listen to a long lecture from the boss 🙂

  9. lavender says:

    Sacts, Performance Appraisal, when led by un – committed professionals ( I would rather call them something else) will come up as a pain in wrong place. It is, when used rightly and appropriately,is a very powerful tool which can help high level deliver. And “appropriateness” here is a very long process which begins before recruitment I do understand the scenario given here by you is a very common one, in many countries. Happily we comply as we all need out jobs. I discovered it can be done differently accidentally. And have tried from then to implement it. Getting a senior management buy -is then is a million dollar enterprise 🙂

  10. Munish says:

    Hi Arun,

    Great stuff! You are turning out to be another Chetan Bhagat.

    I agree Performance Appraisals turn out to be ritualistic affair more often than not. The outcome is predecided and the then its upto to ingenuity of the boss how to justify the same with his arguments.

    Cheers,

    Munish

  11. gatehouse54 says:

    Your story gives me the impression that in India, the employee is nothing more than a minion, a follower, someone who does what they’re told without questioning or providing another opinion. I, too, have worked for companies like this – ones where the PA is a joke, with no meaning and no understanding on the part of the employee on where the hell the boss got that information!! Those are demotivating and do nothing to get someone to give more, learn more, seek out others’ opinion, speak up — there is no discretionary behavior in this organization — and not much success, either.

    Companies such as the one described above are filled with poor performers and those that have given up on gaining success. And here in America, there are plenty of those businesses.

    However, I have also worked for a company that implemented a program of performance management. This is not a system focused on the dreaded performance review, but a system that is year round. Every quarter my supervisor and I sat down to review my goals, analyze what went right and what went wrong, am I doing the best job as a team player, was there anything my supervisor could do to help me? There was a feeling amongst all of us that we needed to give our all to make our unit successful. We understood the bottom line and our “line of sight” to the bottom line was clear and convincing.

    And at the end of the year, there were NO surprises as to how I had performed throughout the year — there were notes and calendars for reminders of what I had accomplished. I came to the review with a self-evaluation that was reviewed first. The conversation was then more about what my boss and I saw equally, and what I needed to do better. But my self-evaluation said the same thing — I knew, better than anyone, what I needed to do further to be successful.

    Was this a process tedious, time consuming and cumbersome to the boss? Did they like it? I doubt that it was on their top ten list of things they wanted to do. But they knew that it worked — by truly managing my performance, with me, the result was in my giving more discretionary performance than had I been insulted on a regular basis.

  12. Pavan Kishore says:

    Why was Waimudu silent all along ? Maybe he had the wisdom that MW did not !

    1. ivak99 says:

      Thanks all for your comments. Will try answering them offline..else the thread will be double what it is; or confusing if i were to cram all in one.

      Re specifically re Pavan’s query:
      🙂 Wiser he may be (in due course, after learnign at the feet of the master), but went into inaction (may be sometimes that’s the best thing to do) at the sight of percieved adversity. Not following the advice blindly, or the ability to read between the lines; was the need of the hour here; than mere doling out of wisdom 🙂

      Btw u all make me feel like Vikram of vikram/betaal.. damned if u answer and damned if u don’t 😀

  13. Ulla Folgero says:

    Hi Arun,
    Ofcourse the leader should encourage the employees to think free but still “beat as one”, as you so sightfully said.

    A good story about “following orders” (as I understand the story)
    From Ulla

  14. Fantastic one. Come what may; do what you got to do and set out to do in the first place.Appraisals are rituals /painful process needs to be gone thro like shaving, Delivery, I guess!!!… In the end they all dont matter and every one knows it I guess!!!.. All have targets to meet…..
    Keep flowing.
    Karthik.

  15. Hareesh Bhargavan says:

    Appraisal too is managing expectations. If allowed to slip a little, so fast it hits the rock bottom. HSSS turns PPP (Pathetic, Pissed on and Punched over)

  16. Sonia says:

    Interesting piece, was thinking of my previous appraisals though haven’t got a nerve wrecking feedback. But going to the meeting room to discuss the appraisal/ work accelerates my brain- random thoughts which are meaningless, maybe even stupid Though at times we do face the blows from the big guys. It’s funny how we focus on the literal meaning of the feedback and continue to do so.
    Is it a natural tendency to do so?
    I might discuss this with my boss, discretely.

  17. RAJANI SRIKUMAR says:

    Hey Arun,

    As ever…..another masterpiece:)

    I have a question, though….what would the story be like if the PA result was….”exceeded expectations”?
    I guess it wouldnt be very different, considering the present global situation….
    A result like this would just act as an ego-booster….benefits, nil…explanation—global meltdown. MW would make you feel obliged anyways, that you atleast have a job, unlike the less fortunate ”laid-off” brethren…

    Performance Appraisals in my opinion is a hogwash….depends on how much you have managed to impress upon the Management….to be taken, with a (big) pinch of salt…

  18. Shirin Ara says:

    GOOD ONE!!!!! 🙂

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