There are few corporate rituals less popular and more practiced than performance reviews. If our people are our greatest resource, no platitude rings hollower than the feigned understanding of their resourcefulness. This is the actual nuts and bolts of actual innovation – the ability to move beyond the gravitational pull of power structures, the boundaries of siloed systems, and the inertia of entrenched bureaucracies:
- To penetrate new markets!
- To remedy chronic shortcomings!
- To forge game-changing innovations!
- To get the real work done!
Each of those laudable goals must be met by steely resolve and channeled through the social loop. Consulting staff enlist KM support for realizing these aims. But a peripheral assist does not a critical path make. At review time those managers might well be trading up for a promotion by focusing on the contributions of their direct peers and not the collaborations of an extended team. And the indirect nature of knowledge work begs the existential question of knowledge-based ethics, practices, and careers:
How does one gain a merit-worthy move up the managerial ranks – particularly on teams that are often scattered, and double-staffed to other operational groups?
That uphill incline tilts even steeper for the folks retained to blast through the indifference. Those calcified process flows stuck in-between: (1) the front-office that brings in the revenues, and (2) the back office that counts them.
Knowledge managers by definition are expected to break with routines while playing within the rules. They are expected to do this typically by flying solo into the strong headwinds of ingrained habits. That whistle-blowing can sound shrill and incriminating to the keepers of longstanding allegiances. These are not your father’s old boy networks. These are keepers of traditions to policies and protocols that appear just fine from the inside and positively undefendable from a longer-term and customer-facing perspective.
Muckraking over the Coals
At CYA that tension was further inflamed by the binding rationale for acquiring System Wisdom: Let’s absorb the profits but then swallow this change management formula too? That didn’t go down so well. Organizationally this meant looking in the mirror – could we integrate the acquisition mindset into the larger culture? From a KM perspective this meant confronting CYA’s ambivalence to new thinking and alternative approaches.
The role of muckraker for knowledge managers assumes not only that we're suited to be mavericks but that our success operates around an operational imperative. Without a targeted outcome successes are small and isolated by the vacuum that forms in the absence of tangible benefits to the business.
Failing that, the knowledge brain trust reports to no one and answers to all. We tend to float below front-line customer operations and revenue streams. While no less beholden to them, knowledge folks typically report to teams of one with visibility into every which silo we're required to smash.
That muckraking happened over the coals of the well-tended CYA pecking order. This dominance hierarchy was not just a Darwinian take on the corporate food chain. It was also the obstacle course sanctioned as the performance review cycle: hunting season for jerks.
Respecting the Box
As we’ve seen through the lens of the performance review, thinking outside the box is one thing. Acting on that thinking from within said box is a decision that lives outside our authority as change agents. As CYA decorum suggests that box is reinforced with some pretty thick walls. What’s communicated within them does not deviate from those boundaries. A knowledge manager who reaches outside their reporting level or distribution list has not only waded outside the collective comfort zone but violated its confidences. By reporting upward without regard to station the KM grunt has circumvented the command chain.
Like most CYA lessons this was an act of omission. I wasn’t aggressively stepping over a superior but inadvertently stepping on a landmine. The inspiration to stray outside the talk box came from the need to bond with the business and draw from the same gumption and resourcefulness of the System Wisdom team model. The resulting reprimand was the first hint that the old bootstrap routines were boxed out of the CYA power structure. To think otherwise was naïve. To act in anyone’s interest beyond one’s immediate reports was not simply a misinformed overreach but a glaring error in judgment.
Demerit-oracy in Action
Like any reasonable knowledge manager I sought to connect these isolated violations of the CYA protocol. As performance review season kicked in it became apparent to me that under the veneer of merit flew the flag of Demerit-ocracy. Drum roll please … what exactly is Demerit-ocracy (accent on the “DE”)?
Definition: Gotcha culture for punitive politicking – one where all point systems and scoring formulas give way to who’s minding the performance store. Here’s a sample range of outcomes:
· I will overlook your shitty performance because I admire your winning personality.
· Every marginal misstep will stick to you like the static cling of a thousand shag rugs – take that you loser!
Organizationally performance reviews serve two pragmatic functions:
- It’s a collection basket for days of plenty: “Tell us what line you’re waiting in and we’ll tell you where the lines are shorter!”
- It's a dragnet operation for times of scarcity. Demerits are tradeable currency for trimming the ranks from the bloat of past hiring binges.
On a personal level the practice plays out as corporate frontier justice – beyond shouting distance from the civil liberties that defend us against shakedowns, entrapment, and self-incrimination. All roads run up and down one’s organizational progression. Yet there are no arbitrators to broker an honest difference between the reviewer-supervisor and reviewed-underling. In a padlocked top-down review system there is no incentive to favor or even consider the greater good or recognize the win-win outcomes that stem from the positive reciprocity encouraged by KM.
The spoils go to the jerks: the rewarding of power for power’s sake.
At CYA this meant placing your standing in the hands of your time-keeper – the manager/owner for the tasks you clock into your time sheet. To CYA’s HR folks it meant an observable check-in on the career growth calendar between the knowledge doer-bees and their scorekeepers. To me it will forever mean a license to silence constructive feedback or ambush useful advice.
Taxonomy and Representation
Brittany Whalesong had two unique gifts:
- Creating a taxonomy that shadowed CYA’s obsession with counting and fact-keeping.
- Treating her creation as the exclusive province of Brittany Whalesong.
The first hint I was over Brittany’s barrel was the inability to reach her. I knew she was resourced as a subject matter expert to a client engagement and that availability was limited. That meant stockpiling blocks of questions dependent on the conditional logic of multi-step instructions. Since her know-how of the taxonomy resided solely with her, there were limited opportunities to crowd-source or leverage the team's insights. I assumed that trying independently to solve these problems would be the best teacher.
Follow-up requests for additional onsite training were denied. Remote-based training was scheduled, postponed, and ultimately cancelled a few weeks after Brittany communicated that I was to receive "a couple of months more of training" before I would be "officially ramped up." Instead she refused to schedule any form of regular communications and team-building for problem-solving and Q&A. All that receded into the background until review season. That’s when I learned through the food chain of Brittany’s …
'Shock' at my ignorance of taxonomy development, my inability to learn it, and my dishonesty in pretending to be a skilled practitioner. She writes that my misrepresentation of this skill caused the reputation of vocabulary services to suffer. Surely she overestimated my talents as a salesman: "My biggest recommendation is not for Marc to oversell himself."
Rather than follow-up a hatchet job with another losing hand I chose not to dispute an unfavorable rating (this is a managers' prerogative). I spoke to the professional virtues of periodic feedback and the firm behaviors that inform all touch points in the review process. My role was not to advise or assess but to learn and to support the team.
The one prerequisite Brittany insisted on was not about prior experience but that I be dedicated. On both counts I worked diligently to learn a new tool, accruing 213 hours, mostly over a short, intensive burst of six weeks. How’s that for counting? Regrettably my client interactions were minimal and almost exclusively on email -- mostly cc-ed as a recipient. That made it harder and easier:·
- Harder to understand the viewpoints and priorities of our clients
- Easier to piece together an escape route from the obstruction of jerks
The blog series KM in the Jerkplace is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.