Saturday, August 28, 2021

Assessing performance in a pandemic


A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a friend who was preparing for her performance review. She oversaw a major academic program but was discouraged because “There was so much I had wanted to achieve. I just didn’t get things done.” As she beat up on herself for not achieving the growth she had hoped for, I was at a complete loss for words. Didn’t she remember that we were one year into the COVID Pandemic? A time when normal expectations had been set aside by all? It made me reflect about performance evaluations during a black swan event like the pandemic.

I recalled Nassim Taleb’s book: “The Black Swan”. In the foreword to the book, Nassim paid homage to the mistreated heroes of history. Those individuals who “saved our lives, who helped us avoid disasters”. He explained this with a hypothetical thought experiment where he asked us to imagine a courageous law maker, who just before Sept 11, 2001, enacted a law that required cockpit doors in a commercial airliner to be bullet proofed and locked during flights. While this law would have prevented the events of 9/11, no one would really know that (since no one expected the events of 9/11 to happen) – the legislator would get no credit for it and may even have been vilified for increasing airline costs, for preventing interactions between passengers and pilots and for a host of other things. As Taleb points out, history has been supremely unkind to these unsung heroes whose performance lay in preventing events that could have been so harmful.  But since we didn’t anticipate the events occurring, we never appreciated those people.

Coming back to my friend who was disappointed about her performance. In these pandemic times, we may need to rethink the way we evaluate performances. For instance, during the pandemic we saw significant anger against academic institutions (for instance the numerous petitions and confrontations for tuition refunds), significant erosion in employee morale, psychological impact on employee well being and so on. In the case of my friend, none of this happened in the unit she supervised. Employees and students remained relatively satisfied, and work went on, for the most part, in a normal fashion. From my point of view, the nonoccurrence of negative outcomes during the pandemic was a singular achievement and something to be exceedingly proud of.

But even stepping away from the performance evaluation situation. In these pandemic times, I meet so many self-motivated individuals who are stressed because they are currently performing at a lower than desired level. When some of them share their frustration with me, I am reminded of valuable advice I once received. In the third year of my PhD program, a time which was critical for getting publications and completing my thesis, I was hospitalized with a liver ailment which made me fall behind. I was frustrated and any time I could, I would try to put in long hours to make up missed work. But my body was just not ready and I would fall ill again. Charles Manz (my thesis advisor/friend and mentor) called me in one day. Using a hockey analogy, he gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received. “While playing hockey, we all want to go out and shoot goals. But sometimes things don’t go our way and we can’t do that. At such times, just play defense! Prevent a goal from being scored against you. Do that and you will get a chance to score goals later.”. I took his advice and focused on getting better. And it worked out well for me. For all those struggling in this pandemic, I hope you can be kind to yourself. Play defense if needed and a chance to score goals will show up in time.

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