June 2022 – on the paradox of objectives, bias in performance reviews, and figuring out what you think

I hope my Canadian readers had a good Canada Day (July 1st) and that my U.S. readers and a happy Fourth of July.

This issue covers a variety of topics: Showing appreciation ❋ Bits of advice from an original thinker ❋ An example of hiring for diversity ❋ The paradox of objectives ❋ Removing bias from performance reviews ❋ How to figure out what you think ❋ Leadership is not exactly a modern phenomenon ❋ Confusing equality for equity

Photo by Léon McGregor on Unsplash

A discussion in The Economist on research about showing appreciation.1

[the] studies carry two lessons for employers. One is that recognition can have a meaningful impact on workers. The other is that this impact is amplified if shows of appreciation are personal and unexpected. In their haste to act on the first lesson, plenty of companies completely forget the second.

Keep in mind however that

Industrialising appreciation misses the point completely. Automated birthday and work-anniversary congratulations are about as personal as an invoice. Platforms on which peers publicly recognise the hard work of others are liable to encourage performative displays of praise. That is especially likely if every compliment shows up on an analytics dashboard for the boss.

and that

Award schemes also require careful handling. They are great if you win and somewhat less motivating if you don’t stand a chance: (…) comparison with others worsen(s) performance, especially for less able workers.

The take-away:

The secret to showing appreciation is that scarcity matters.

  • It should involve effort: a handwritten note is better than an email, which is better than an algorithm.
  • It should feel personal, not part of a scheme cooked up by the human resources department.
  • And it should be sufficiently rare to register as meaningful: thanking everyone for everything turns gratitude into a commodity.

In other words, appreciation is not a big data project.

Kevin Kelly is the founder of Wired magazine and of The Long Now Foundation. On his 70th birthday he put out a piece in which he provides bits of advice he wishes he had known. It’s not the wisdom I appreciate here as much as the effort to identify what should have been learnt earlier. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Immediately pay what you owe to vendors, workers, contractors. They will go out of their way to work with you first next time.
  • Ask funders for money, and they’ll give you advice; but ask for advice and they’ll give you money.
  • When you don’t know how much to pay someone for a particular task, ask them “what would be fair” and their answer usually is.
  • Thank a teacher who changed your life.
  • Efficiency is highly overrated; Goofing off is highly underrated. Regularly scheduled sabbaths, sabbaticals, vacations, breaks, aimless walks and time off are essential for top performance of any kind. The best work ethic requires a good rest ethic.
  • If winning becomes too important in a game, change the rules to make it more fun. Changing rules can become the new game.

What would your advice be?

Last month I shared a piece about hiring people different from you to avoid groupthink; that hiring for fit is hiring yourself. A case in point in the Wall Street Journal:

Fernando Perez studied creative writing at Columbia University and is the author of essays that have been published in prominent literary magazines. Mark Hallberg spent years working as a teacher and administrator at schools in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Dustin Lind has a doctorate in physical therapy.

These are a few of the people on the unconventional coaching staff who have helped transform the San Francisco Giants into a powerhouse and disrupted a sport that traditionally hasn’t taken well to outsiders. The Giants were the surprise of the National League last season, winning 107 games and ending the Los Angeles Dodgers’ streak of eight consecutive division titles. It’s been more of the same early in 2022, with San Francisco again looking like a serious World Series contender.2

Objectives are well and good when they are sufficiently modest, but things get a lot more complicated when they’re more ambitious.

In fact, objectives actually become obstacles towards more exciting achievements, like those involving discovery, creativity, invention, or innovation—or even achieving true happiness.

In other words (and here is the paradox), the greatest achievements become less likely when they are made objectives.

Not only that, but this paradox leads to a very strange conclusion—if the paradox is really true then the best way to achieve greatness, the truest path to “blue sky” discovery or to fulfill boundless ambition, is to have no objective at all.

— Kenneth Stanley and Joel Lehman in Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned.

I think we should drop performance reviews altogether and I did so whenever I could. But you might not have that “luxury”. Here’s a specific case of trying to improve them by removing bias:

First, identify the sources of bias. In this case,

1. Prove It Again

Groups stereotyped as less competent — including women, people of color, individuals with disabilities, older employees, LGBT+, and professionals from blue-collar backgrounds — have to prove themselves over and over again. The way this plays out in performance evaluations is that “prove-it-again” groups tend to be judged on their performance — their mistakes are noticed more and remembered longer — while the majority white men are judged on their potential.

2. The Tightrope

A narrower range of workplace behavior is accepted from women and people of color. White men simply need to be authoritative and ambitious in order to succeed, but women and people of color risk being seen as overly aggressive or “difficult” if they behave the same way.

The clearest evidence of tightrope bias in our audit concerned comments about personality. We found that people of color and white women were far more likely to have their personality mentioned in their evaluations (including negative personality traits). What’s optional for white men (getting along with others), seemed to be necessary for white women and people of color.

3. The Maternal Wall

This reflects assumptions that mothers are no longer committed to their work, that they probably shouldn’t be, and that they are less competent. (Think “pregnancy brain.”)

One of our most shocking findings was that almost 20% of white women received comments on their performance evaluations to the effect that they did not want to make partner.

4. Racial Stereotypes

Racial stereotypes pertaining to performance evaluations can be overt, such as the stereotype that Asian Americans are good at technical tasks but lack leadership ability, or more subtle, such as the assumption that people of color need to be more willing to sacrifice work-life balance than white men.

And then, do something about it. In this case,

First, we changed the form itself. The original form had an open-ended prompt that didn’t specify which competencies the organization valued or require evidence to justify the manager’s ratings. The new form broke job categories down into competencies and asked that ratings be backed by at least three pieces of evidence.

Second, a simple, one-hour workshop that taught everyone how to use the new form. The workshop showed actual comments from the prior year’s evaluations and asked a simple question: Which of the four basic patterns of bias does this comment represent, or does it represent no bias?

As managers we decide, we chose among options, we offer our point of view when asked. We often come up with decisions, choices, and answers on the spot. And we do so because we think we know what we think.

Here is a simple way to know what we _really_ think.

Ideas can feel complete. It’s only when you try to put them into words that you discover they’re not. So if you never subject your ideas to that test, you’ll not only never have fully formed ideas, but also never realize it.

Putting ideas into words is certainly no guarantee that they’ll be right. Far from it. But though it’s not a sufficient condition, it is a necessary one.3

Our decisions, choices, and answers —our ideas— would be better served by having recourse to this simple tactic: “let me looking into it further and I’ll get back to you on that.” Buy yourself some time and write it out first.

Two on “leadership is not exactly a modern invention”

Herodian 2.11.2:

He shared personally in their hardships, sleeping in an ordinary army tent and eating and drinking whatever was available to all; on no occasion did he make use of imperial luxuries or comforts. As a result, he enjoyed even greater popularity among the troops; respecting him not only for sharing their hardships but also for overcoming all difficulties, they carried out his orders with enthusiasm.

Plutarch, Life of Marius 7.5-6:

Indeed it seems generally to be the case that our labours are eased when someone goes out of his way to share them with us; it has the effect of making the labour not seem forced. And what a Roman soldier likes most to see is his general eating his ration of bread with the rest, or sleeping on an ordinary bed, or joining in the work of digging a trench or raising a palisade. The commanders whom they admire are not so much those who distribute honours and riches as those who take a share in their hardships and their dangers; they have more affection for those who are willing to join in their work than for those who allow them to take it easy.4

Herodian was a Greek historian and the author of a History of the Roman Empire. He lived around the years 170-240.

Plutarch was a Greek philosopher, historian, biographer, and essayist. He is known for a series of biographies of illustrious Greeks and Romans, and Moralia, a collection of essays and speeches. He lived around the years 46-119.

Speaking of distinctions (which I have brought up in a few earlier issues), here is another one that is fundamental:

We can sometimes confuse equity and equality, but there is an important distinction. Equality represents a state in which everything is equal. Equity represents the quality of being fair but also just and impartial.

Of course, we can never reach true equality in our organizations. People come to us with different skills, backgrounds, and personal philosophies. The world outside our organizations is constantly changing. And equality isn’t really what people desire (…).

“[Equality is] just not the way humans work. You have to meet people where they are and be flexible enough, listen well enough, to tailor your programs, practices, and policies for what this individual might need.”

Though we can’t make everyone equal, we can devise programs that support and advance people equitably. That means adjusting programs to meet people where they are.5

The take-away:

  • If you treat everyone the same (equality), you’re not going to get the best out of your employees. Equality can actually exclude people.
  • Instead, treat everyone as individuals (equity). Tailor your programs, practices, and policies to what each employee might need.

Two things before I go:

The first thing

It is summer in the Northern Hemisphere where I live and this can only mean one thing: more reading!

I’m always eager to read works on new topics and works from authors I have not read before. I don’t care if it’s fiction or non-fiction. I like to mix it up.

So, please do me a favor: reply to this email and tell me what book you are reading at the moment… or the very last one you read. I’m sure I will find inspiration in your readings. So, go ahead, don’t think twice, hit that Reply and help an avid reader out.

The other thing

The pandemic has been a strain on many of us, myself included. I want to take the summer to recharge and to ponder on my consulting practice. So, no newsletter issue for July and August.

I often ask people in my coaching conversations to step back and look at their situation from a new perspective. I will practice what I preach.

In the meantime, I hope you have a good and restful summer. And I’ll see you in September!




“The power of small gestures”, The Economist, May 28, 2022, p. 58.


At the time of this writing, their record is 40-33-0, 3rd place in NL_West.


“Putting Ideas into Words.” Paulgraham.com, 2022, paulgraham.com/words.html.


Gilleland, Michael. “Laudator Temporis Acti: Leadership.” Blogspot.com, 2022, laudatortemporisacti.blogspot.com/2022/06/leadership.html.


“What Would It Take to Create a Great Place to Work for All?” Big Think, Big Think, 18 Feb. 2021, bigthink.com/plus/what-would-it-take-to-create-a-great-place-to-work-for-all/.

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