Why Your Performance Review Sucks


23 Oct Why Your Performance Review Sucks

skills_love_money_rzJohnny was a tweener.

As a coach that’s what we called a player who was too small to play forward (or center) and not good enough to play guard. They were stuck in between positions, and you couldn’t find time on the floor without being at a disadvantage.

More than once I found myself telling a player “go home and grow six inches” during the summer. The truth is that you can’t coach height, or quickness, and you have to play the hand you are dealt.

So why don’t managers do the same for their employees? The fact is that when we get together for our annual performance review we spend too much time focusing on weaknesses. We tend to gloss over the areas of strength and instead focus on one or two areas of improvement.

Perhaps this is ingrained into our minds at an early age when we come home from school with four A’s and one B and our parents spend the next three weeks riding our ass on the one subject we need to work on. (No, I’m not bitter, why do you ask?)

Why focus on that one subject? Unless you are clearly underperforming in that subject (and a B grade is NOT underperforming) it makes little sense to tell your child they need to focus on that area. Now, if your child says they want to be a doctor and they are struggling with Biology then yeah, you might ask them to focus a bit more. The only time it makes sense to focus on a weakness is if you need to remove an obstacle of sorts. But often that is not the case and we end up forcing people to focus on areas where they are weak simply because people believe that is the right way to manage or coach others.

A better approach would be to focus on the strengths of the individual. Have them spend their time and energy on becoming more awesome at the things they already excel at doing. You can find a lot of articles written recently regarding this idea. You can also buy the book StrengthsFinder 2.0 and visit for more information on this methodology. I highly recommend the book and associated quiz that helps you find your strengths as an individual. I took the quiz and found my top five strengths to be:

  1. Competition
  2. Relator
  3. Significance
  4. Analytical
  5. Harmony

If you know me you’d know that those five items come as no surprise. My guess is that if my coworkers read those descriptions they would also agree. In fact, it’s probably not a bad idea if I were to include these strengths on my resume page, just as Buck Woody (blog | @buckwoody) has done already.

I have no idea why this concept of focusing on your strengths seems to be gaining traction recently. To me this concept is something fundamental that was common knowledge years ago to anyone that had to assemble a successful team.

The best coaches or managers understand how to take the strengths of the individual team members and get them to achieve great things working together. The worst coaches or managers blame their team members for not being able to perform, usually in areas for which they were not strong. For example, I can’t send one of the slowest, shortest players on my basketball team and tell him or her to grab more rebounds than anyone else. I’d be an awful coach and lose a lot of games if I kept putting that player in a spot where they can’t be successful, no matter how many times I sent them emails saying “GROW SIX INCHES” after every loss.

If you are tasked with leading a team here are my tips to help you keep that team performing well:

1. Focus on individual strengths – This allows for people to excel in areas that are naturally easy and often leads to happier team members.

2. Do not focus on individual weaknesses – It makes no sense for you to expect each and every team members to be identical to all others, unless you are building a clone army of course.

3. Put team members in the right spots to be successful – If your data modeler doesn’t know Powershell then don’t have them working on automating scripting tasks simply because you are short one headcount. Chances are you’ll be short two headcount before too long. Get people into the right spots for everyone to be successful and enjoy their work.

4. Do not blame a team member for your failure – As the leader/manager/coach YOU are responsible for the team’s success, not anyone else. If you can’t manage someone who doesn’t fit a particular mold then you shouldn’t be managing anyone, period.

5. Know communication is key – Tell the team members what they are doing well, and why, and also be clear about what their role will be. That way, if they stumble, it is easy to go back to remind them what the team is expecting from them. No one wants to be surprised after the fact that the team was looking for something different than what they were trying to deliver.

6. Ask – Ask for input from your team members. A simple question of “Hey, we are thinking of this, what are your thoughts?” will make them feel engaged. Beware, though, if you don’t plan on listening then don’t bother asking. And if you don’t bother asking, then don’t bother trying to have an engaged team.

7. Do self-evaluations – Team members often get their performance reviewed by others. Let them review their own performance as well. Their self-assessment will give you valuable insight into what motivates them the most.

If you think a weakness can be turned into a strength, I hate to tell you this, but that’s another weakness.” –Jack Handy

5 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • kekline

    Good one, Tom! I always tell the folks I’m mentoring the same thing. One of the things that research has revealed is that shoring up your weaknesses ADDs percentage points to your productivity. However, working on your strengths MULTIPLIES the percentile of your productivity. So a DBA who’s so-so at database normalization might get 20-30% better at design by taking a lot of classes, while the same DBA might become 200-300% more effective by reinforcing their already strong T-SQL programming skills.

    • Ayman El-Ghazali

      Interesting. How about people that are average across the board, meaning they don’t have any particularly strong strengths or interests. Your “jack of all trades” type of person.

      • ThomasLaRock

        Ask them what they enjoy doing the most and let them excel in those areas.

        • Ayman El-Ghazali

          The question was mostly for myself :)
          I have very broad interests and an addiction to learning. I try to focus on the things I’m stronger at but it’s hard to narrow it down. I love DBA work, I love BI, I love HA/DR and doing Infrastructure (Windows stuff) but I enjoy development as well. If I had more hours in the day and double the brain size, I’d try to master everything. One thing I’m particularly strong in is consuming chocolate; but that won’t progress my career much.

          • ThomasLaRock

            OK, try this then: make a list of the things that make you smile from your work day. Try it when you get home each night, keep track of something that happened at work that made you happy. Once you get that list you will start to shape what it is you want to do for work.

            Buck Woody had me do a similar exercise years ago. That’s when I knew that the life of a production DBA was not for me, and that I needed to find something new.

          • Ayman El-Ghazali

            That’s awesome advice. I’m already picturing some of the things I like doing at work, the top of them being teaching. Thanks for sharing I think this will help me a lot.

          • Leonard Murphy

            Being good at learning *is* a strength. Not everyone finds learning easy.

    • ThomasLaRock

      Thanks Kevin! I believe I’ve read that same research, but I couldn’t find a link. Let me know where we can find that!

  • lap

    I just had a performance appraisal after five months in a new team where I was told that I perform below expectations and didn’t qualify for a salary increase. Reason? I’m located in a different city and my boss finds it difficult to assign me to projects. He consistently puts our weekly meetings at the bottom of his priority list, won’t let me be part of the enterprise DBA group because it’s “awkward,” and refuses to use things like LiveMeeting to enable me to participate in meetings. Yet somehow I’m the only one underperforming? I’d love a boss that understood even a fraction of this. He’d have a far more productive team.

    • ThomasLaRock

      Agreed, there seems to be a lack of good managers, something I have written about before:

      • lap

        Ironically, just prior to the re-org that resulted in my being dumped into this manager’s group, I had just taken on a team lead position and had two great mentors helping me learn leadership skills. Those two people (along with many others) were both fired in the re-org. So to go from that to this was just like a kick to the head.

        • ThomasLaRock

          Sorry to hear about the step backwards you were forced to take. I think it is good that you have some awareness here though, as it is likely to help you weather the storm.

  • Ayman El-Ghazali

    This is the pill I needed for today. I have two people that I “manage” and I’ve found that giving them flexibility to work on things that they like and learn things they are interesting in makes them super productive. People are motivated by trying to gain mastery and have flexibility to learn in areas they love. I wish everyone would realize that.

    • ThomasLaRock

      Yes, I find that when people are enjoying their work they are likely to be more productive.

      • Ayman El-Ghazali

        Wanted to share this to drive your point home.

        • ThomasLaRock

          Great video, thanks for sharing!

  • datachick

    “3. Put team members in the right spots to be successful ”
    I think this the one thing that managers feel they are forced to do due to budget constraints. Most operational DBAs will never be passionate about great database design other than for performance reasons. But that means that data (and therefore business and customers) suffer.

    I’d rater train another architect or analyst to be a good modeler/designer to do database design than to make an operational person be bad at it.

    • ThomasLaRock

      Exactly! Find the right people for the right tasks.

      • datachick

        Sorry to splog, but I wrote about jobs and passions here:

        I once was assigned to work on writing printer drivers for Xerox. The company I was working for was falling on bad times and I wanted to help my manager by staying billable, but after a couple of months I was so not happy. And it showed. At least there was a whole team of us, billing for our managers, working on stuff that we had no interest in. Eventually they found us a “real” project.

        But I can’t even begin to imagine how much better the work would have been if the company had placed people on the team who got up everyday and said “I just thought of a better way of detecting toner levels!”.

  • datachick

    But what about those who use this “I’m not going to focus on my weaknesses” because that *is* hard work. If your weakness is that you can’t get along with anyone, what’s a manager to do about all the dysfunction that spills all over the team when that guy insists on still being a jerk? Just fire him?

    • ThomasLaRock

      I tried to mention that in the post, you would want to focus on a weakness when it presents a real obstacle. In this case, either the person gets better at interpersonal skills or they get reassigned…or fired, yes.

      There were times when I would find my team at a disadvantage, say with height. So what I would do is focus on what our team could do well (we could run the floor and play good team defense) so we focused on that in practice and games.

    • Ayman El-Ghazali

      Sometimes “can’t get a long with anyone” can be very subjective. I work with “difficult” people regularly and to be honest, they’re great. They just want to be respected and want to do a great job but sometimes they’re put in difficult situations. I’ve been told that I “rebel against authority” before by my college councilor. It was after he sarcastically remarked “Welcome to America.” It takes two to tango sometimes :)

      There are some people that are just jerks and don’t know how to behave and can ruin team dynamics. I’m of the favor of firing them if they can’t change because no one wants a hostile work environment where they are not respected.

      • datachick

        Yeah, I work with all kinds of “personalities”. It can be frustrating. But one can usually tell when others are trying. We don’t have to all be friends, but we can’t be destructive.

        • Ayman El-Ghazali

          Well said. It’s about tolerance and respect not acceptance and friendship.

  • John


    IMO, this is great career advice. Life is way too short. If you are not doing what you love than you might be doing the wrong thing at the wrong place.

    I am very lucky. My work is one of my hobbies and it’s also what I am really good at. I can honestly say I enjoy going to work on a daily basis. I get to focus on my passion which includes SQL Server performance tuning, HA and cutting edge technologies. Hopefully, my yearly review will show that too.

    Thank you for sharing the strength finder assessment. I am curious to see what are my top five strengths.


    • ThomasLaRock

      Thanks John!

  • Mike Walsh

    What’s a performance review? 😉

    • Mike Walsh

      But seriously – this is absolutely stunning advice. Great book recommendation as well. Thanks for the post, Tom :)

      • ThomasLaRock

        I’ve never known my advice to be “stunning”. Either you are turning British or you are stunned by the idea that I wrote this.

        I’m good with either option, really.

        Thanks Mike!

        • Mike Walsh

          Good point. I actually don’t know where that word came from. More of the former than the latter. I enjoyed the post.

  • realsqlguy

    Alrighty, this is the second book that I’ve purchased at your recommendation. You didn’t steer me wrong on the first one, let’s see if you can go 2 for 2. That’s one of my strengths, blindly following the recommendations of others.

    • realsqlguy

      These are my strengths, according to the book:


      Lumping the descriptions of those five strengths together, I’m presented with a shockingly accurate description of myself. It’s going to take some time to figure out how, or if, I should act on the recommendations offered. I’m a bit disappointed that it failed to touch on my stunning good looks, natural athletic abilities, or my amazing sense of humor.

      • ThomasLaRock

        I’m not shocked by any of this.

  • Pingback: (SFTW) SQL Server Links 25/10/13 • John Sansom()

  • Dave Schutz

    My department head and I just had this discussion last weak. Quit working on minor weaknesses and work to improve your strengths. Then turn those strengths into opportunities. I’m buying the book. Thanks

    • ThomasLaRock


  • Pingback: Superpowers Revealed - RealSQLGuy()

  • Pingback: Superpowers Revealed - SQL Server - SQL Server - Toad World()

  • Richard Douglas

    Hi Tom,

    Great post. I posted something similar about my traits as part of my PASS Board of Directors campaign –

    For those of you who don’t want to read the whole thing, my strengths were:


    Ironically the book said I might want to work with databases :-)

    It really is a great philosophy and would encourage people to buy the book as my mentor did to me.


    • ThomasLaRock

      Thanks Rich!

  • Pingback: Sharing my StrengthsFinder strengths |

  • Pingback: Recognizing Community Leaders – Tribal Awards Finalists – Simple-Talk()