Goals and Performance Reviews – Match Made in Hell?


Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

In a cosmic sense of timing, I’m working through annual Performance reviews and at the same time I’m listening to Atomic Habits by James Clear. It may not seem like a direct link but he talked about the three layers of habits – Outcomes, Processes and Identity – and explained how approaching things differently changed what really happens inside.

When you are focused on outcomes, the habits you put in place and the Identity you set for yourself are those of someone who wants to achieve that goal. For instance, every fall I enter the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) event to achieve the goal of finishing 50,000 words in a month. The goal is 50,000 words. Simple to explain. Difficult to do. But does that change who you are? Are you a writer afterwards or are you someone that wrote 50,000 words? That will depend on how you approach the competition.

If you go into NaNoWriMo with the idea that you are going to write 50,000 words, and you achieve that goal … so what? You wrote 50,000 words, but are you a writer? Did you build the habits of a writer? Is anything that you did repeatable? Are you going to be able to continue writing like this or was it a “once and done” type of event?

Is there another way?

If you listen to James Clear, there is definitely a different way and, to be honest, I agree with him.

Approach NaNoWriMo from a completely different, but compatible angle. Instead of entering NaNoWriMo as someone who wants to write 50,000 words, enter the competition as a writer who will happen to write 50,000 words. As a writer, you need different habits, those habits will sustain you during the valleys of despair and will lead you to the peaks of triumph.

Approach the competition from the perspective of a writer, not that completing the competition will make you a writer, but by competing in the competition you will confirm your identity as a writer.

We are who we think we are.

You see it in business every day. Two people with similar skill sets, but completely different perspectives on who they are. One succeeds wildly while the other is … content. One believed in themselves, acquired the identity of a successful entrepreneur and went forward. The other did not have that identity and as a result the habits they formed and the outcomes that were the result, demonstrated it.

Performance Reviews

Many performance reviews have an area with regard to “Goals”. What does the person want to achieve in the upcoming year? The goal is always something that can be measured because if it can’t be measured it doesn’t exist, right? That’s why we get goals like:

  • Complete course XXXX by September 1st
  • Plan out project YYYY by October 1st
  • Meet with my manager bi-weekly

And while all of these are laudable goals, do they really do anything for the person that put them down? They can all be measured, but do they mean anything?

For example, “Complete course XXXX by September 1st”. I’ve seen this on so many reviews (and I’ve written this on so many of my own), that it is, in many aspects nothing more than HR fluff. It is something that can be measured, reviewed and evaluated as to whether or not the person achieved the goal. But does it help the individual? Does it allow me to figure out the end goal of this person? Does it show growth and progress?

No. But there is a better way.

Identity Goals

Instead of saying that they want to complete a course by a certain date, why not have a person explain what Identity they want to assume?

For example, write as a goal “I want to become a PostgreSQL DBA.” That is a solid, straightforward goal. That goal will lead you to various things that you want to do in order to demonstrate, both to you and your supervisor, that you are a PostgreSQL DBA. That could mean not just completing, but passing a course or obtaining a certification. These are Outcomes, based upon the Identity that the person wants to assume.

In order to achieve those Outcomes they will likely need to adopt new habits. These habits could be reading articles on being a PostgreSQL DBA on a weekly basis, studying on a nightly basis for the certification exam or carving out the time to take the course and then passing any exam. At the end, there are Outcomes that demonstrate that the person is who they say they are: a PostgreSQL DBA.

The other route, just listing an Outcome? That doesn’t demonstrate much at all, other than the fact that the person completed the course. And while, in some cases, the habits may be the same, if you don’t have belief in yourself that you are a DBA, then all you will be is someone that passed a course.

Who we think we are matters

We’re told as young children that we can be whomever we want. Well, many of us, that is. Those that believe that go on to do wonders. Those that don’t? They move through life, some more successful than others, but none of them fully embrace the role that they are in. They exist but they don’t embrace.

Establishing that Identity of who you are is vitally important. It works for business, for leisure and even for your gender. If the identity that you present to the world is not the identity that you have within you, you’ll never be happy.

So let’s change Performance reviews from a list of Goals that we want to obtain, to a list of Identities that we want to embrace.


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