Friday, November 6, 2009

Always Available, Always Broken

'Always Available, Always Broken' is the name of an article I read recently in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

According to a study of people working in the IT branch throughout Germany, there is a level of stress permeating the entire industry that can negatively impact health and productivity.

There are several predictable culprits, for example:

  • Fewer people having to do more work due to the current economic situation.
  • The expectation that one is available round the clock via several different types of media.
  • The ever changing nature of information technology, resulting in an overwhelmed feeling.
And one culprit that may surprise you: performance management, in particular goals.

The study cites 'new management techniques' involving the rollout of goals and frequent performance reviews. Sound familiar?

But wait, we like performance management and we sort of like goals. And frequent performance reviews are a plus for the employee, in fact some bold thinkers have even referred to timely and constructive feedback as part of employee compensation now that there's no money.

Plus, we all know that Generation Y loves regular reviews because they can't wait a whole year for feedback.

However, the researches who conducted this study warns that this can lead employees to feel like they have to permanently prove their right to be employed. And that can be unnecessarily - as in not value adding - stressful.

Because it creates a feeling of control and insecurity rather than trust.

And the results?

Well, for one thing, more people come to work when sick, which is not good for productivity or general workplace health. Or the national health care bill, come to mention it.

And of course team work tends to get shot to hell in this kind of paranoid, suspicious atmosphere.

But more importantly, highly qualified workers, who are expected to be pretty scarce in just a few years, are being systematically burned out.

This definitely raises some interesting questions about the level of stress of employees in other countries that have a less generous social net and vacation policy than Germany. Not to mention the possible social cost of stress related illnesses over the next decade.

In any event, it sounds like somebody's missing the boat on talent management. If done correctly, one doesn't expect big German men to cower in a corner weeping or laughing hysterically during a simple job satisfaction survey.

(This is why I always say you should talk to people, you don't get nearly as much depth from an online survey.)

What do you think, when does performance management turn into unhealthy micromanagement?


  1. It sounds like you described my thoughts about the US IT industry. I agree with the performance goals issue. During the last few years I worked an IT job, we had to develop our goals and have a mid-year and year-end evaluation. Then the powers-that-be ranked us. Now I'm hearing that the bottom 10% group will automatically be "let go". This is from a company that has, over the last 4 - 5 years, cleaned house with large layoffs. They are already running lean in IT.

    I never found performance reviews to be overly fair. Sometimes we were told that we could not give/receive any grade above or below the "middle" without solid justification but it was up to a subjective person to define what "solid" meant. I could go on and on.

  2. I think it depends how these goals are communicated and followed up - and how realistic they are.

  3. I agree with Reforming Geek. Also, it is once in a blue moon that a manager does reviews well. In my experience I have had a new mgr every 6 mos. Talk about having to lather, rinse repeat. All I can say is for workers to keep a file of successes and hope for the best.

  4. What ReformingGeek describes sounds like cruel and unusual punishment. But then again, just how bottom 10% are these bottom dwellers? Do they deserve the boot?

    And feedback as compensation? Shaaaa. I don't think so. Feedback should be a given. Compensation should be tangible. People are only human :)

  5. The word "performance" has always rubbed me a bit wrong, since it's so open to interpretation by a hiring manager. That being said, this economy might be better served by quarterly "above and beyond reviews", or "accomplishments under impossible conditions reviews" or some such uplifting considerations. The rules and standards of quality work have changed due to those 3 bullets you mentioned; hence "performance" is now a very relative term!

  6. I agree with Michele. Reviews need to happen in a concerted and regularly expected way, and need to be documented well. As an employee, I'd also ask for hard copies of all the review materials. And always understand what vectors you are being graded against.


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