Of rains, ratings and rantings

<Trigger warning for performance appraisals, and other touchy stuff - read at your own risk. My intention is to help anyone who needs to hear this>

The months of August and September in India are characterized by the monsoon, the nostalgic scent of the ground when the rains after a long, dry spell and the sounds of raindrops falling on leaves. For a lot of corporate employees, particularly ones from the Big4s, the rains are also accompanied by emotional storms at the workplace.

This time of year is also fondly referred to as “appraisal season”.

Every year, thousands of employees undergo this elaborate ritual in the capacity of either appraisee or appraiser or both and at the end of it, the much awaited ratings are announced. For some of these employees these could be pivotal years where the rating determines a promotion to the next level which means additional stress. For others, it is a stressful time nonetheless.

From what I have seen in Bangalore at least, there is little else that evokes as huge an outcry in a corporate setting as the rating/appraisal meetings do. And for good reason too – for most people of my generation, the ratings are the equivalent of marksheets/grade cards at the end of each school year and college year. In India, there is a lot of emphasis placed on getting good grades. A strong academic record is supposedly the benchmark of good prospects in life. As such, for a lot of us, myself included, getting good grades or perhaps getting a rating that is ‘above average’ is a form of validation that one is indeed on the right track.

This mindset is slowly changing; however it does continue to be how a lot of people measure success in India in conventional terms.

In my 7 years in the corporate world, I have worked with multiple counselors and counselees and as a result I have been on and continue to be on ‘both sides of the table’ as I like to say. I have been an appraisee and a performance manager and have experienced a wide range of emotions as I have grown through these roles.

I have had years where I felt bitter about not having received the rating I thought I deserved, got into mild confrontations with my then Performance Managers and venting ceaselessly to close friends (outside of work of course) about how unfair things are and how no one ever appreciates the value I bring. I have had one odd year where I did get what I wanted and perhaps a slightly better rating than I thought I deserved at the time (very rare, but it did happen; I will elaborate on this in just a bit).

I’ve experienced the highs, lows and ‘just-meh’s of ratings thus far and much philosophizing later, I have distilled the entire experience into 3 reminders for myself before going out to brave the the storms of appraisal season.

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Reminder 1 – Feel what you’re feeling

Appraisal meetings are never a breeze, so more likely than not, there will be all sorts of feelings that will take over when we hear something we don’t want to hear. When this happens, let it be. Feel what you are feeling, there is no need to suppress the impulse. If you need, take some time to yourself, take a walk, a few deep breaths and feel the emotion.

Feel the emotion but don’t wallow in it.

Once the initial wave passes, collect yourself and acknowledge what has happened. Remember you won’t die from it and get to a place where you can talk about this without letting it overpower who you are as a person.

Reminder 2 – Have your own yardstick

I have had so many years where not only did I meet my performance goals, but exceeded them in ways I never thought was possible, surprising myself and pushing my limits to the hilt. Despite all the stretch and the intense effort that went into that year, I ended up with a rating that didn’t count me as on outlier.

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I was flabbergasted and severely disappointed asking myself what I did wrong for weeks. I became cynical the following year and coasted through the year because I told myself there was no point in doing anything more than what is asked of me, because it won’t change my rating anyway. Surprise, surprise, I end up getting a better rating than I expected. While on a personal level, I knew I could have done a lot more, I was pleasantly surprised at the unexpected outcome and didn’t think too much of it at the time.

Looking back at both these experiences, I’ve understood something that wasn’t very apparent at the time. There are two kinds of years,

The first kind is where you kick yourself into overdrive, go beyond your expectations and then some, and you end up with a rating that doesn’t match your expectations. These kinds of years feel awful in the short run, because your expectations are utterly crushed and it feels as though all your hard work has been in vain. However, in the long run, these years of intense struggle will strike you as the most beautiful – these were the years where you really grew as a person and as a professional. Suffering through rejection is also a form of growth that will serve you well as you rise through the ranks.

The second kind is very rare – and if you ever experience it, always remember to analyse why this happened without feeding your ego too much. These are the years where you coast and still get a good/great rating, which feels really good in the moment, but from a long term career stand point, you could potentially be stagnating in a role that doesn’t challenge you. This won’t be apparent in that year but looking back you might see that these kinds of years aren’t exciting or even worth reminiscing on as much as the first kind.

The point in all of this is simple – in theory, ratings are a relative measure in most cases, you are simply benchmarked against your peers and bonuses are allocated to the most deserving employees after a thorough fact-finding exercise each year. Therefore the rating or ranking depends on what your peer group does through the entire year – something you have no control over. You only have control over what you do. And in highly competitive environments, there will almost always be someone who does things better than you do, but this doesn’t make you any less of a person. You have your own strengths and whatever you have learnt through the year won’t disappear just because someone else is better than you. On the flip side, if you are finding it a little too easy to be an outlier, it probably means you aren’t being challenged enough, you will soon find yourself feeling bored and uninspired which is the worst thing for your career.

I’ve discovered that the easiest way to address both these issues is to have a self-defined measure of success, your own ‘yardstick’ if you will. Gain full understanding of what your role is, use the expectations to develop your yardstick and reflect on the year to see if you’ve exceeded your own expectations:

“Am I proud of what I have done this year?” is the question I ask myself.

When I am at peace with what I have done, it becomes easier for me to accept whatever rating/evaluation is given to me and I can objectively look at the feedback I need to address. It takes the sting out of the entire process and I feel like I can calmly respond to anything that is thrown at me. This isn’t easy to do at all, though it sounds simple on paper. But it gets easier with time.

Reminder 3 – Don’t peg your self esteem or happiness on things you don’t control

Ratings and even promotions generally tend to be a relative measure which means that they are never a measure of who you are as a person. Ratings are for a specific time frame and in relation to a specific peer group who are all benchmarked against a regimented set of goals; it’s a rigid framework to evaluate performance and not to evaluate or compare individuals. Equally the systems to determine promotions are also not always perfect, and sometimes things may not work in your favor because of things you don’t control – such as not being old enough, not being young enough, not having graduated from a prestigious university, or just plain old bad luck. It’s easy to feel frustrated when this happens but the problem with this kind of sadness is that there is nothing you can do to change the outcome, but you can decide what happens next. Let go of what you can’t change – this doesn’t mean you are giving up. You are simply being selective with where you apply your energy. Give your energy to things that lift you up.

And remember to breathe.

Let no one dull your shine! Keep marching on.

Author of 'How to be a Lighthouse'. I write for those pursuing excellence and meaning.

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