The Principal's Office Effect: Why Performance Reviews Create Existential Dread

The Principal's Office

I was not, and I’m sure this is hard for many of you that know me to imagine, the most rule-bound student. My kid is (thank god), and this is only because he gets it from his mother, but little Kevin was more mischievous by nature and was known on occasion to get himself into a little trouble. Rarely though, did my missteps ever truly escalate to the point where I was outside of my immediate teacher’s disciplinary options. There are of course a few exceptions over my years, but this is a leadership and work culture blog, not my personal confessional. In general though, I was a good kid and, again in general, I wasn’t the type that was looking to get in any real trouble. 

There were kids that did though, and when they were really in for it, you’d have that moment that we’re all familiar with - that inevitable crackle of the intercom coming through the room (do they still have intercoms at schools? Do you just got a What’s App from the administration office now?) and the interruptive and all too familiar refrain of “Mrs. {Kevin’s Teacher}, can you send {Person now facing their imminent doom, from my childhood perspective}  to the principal's office?”.  

Cue the stares, unhushed commentary and chuckles, the sinking feeling and dread. 

It’s fascinating to me as I look back that regardless of my guilt (which was the case most of the time) or innocence (self adjudicated of course), it always felt the same. Even if I expected the call, even if there was a warning well ahead of time, even if it was scheduled, expected, and meant to be positive, the feeling was always the same. 

Seriously, I remember I was once called to the Principal’s office for an award with a few other kids from the Academically Gifted program - again, do they still have this? (Anecdotally to me, the AG program was literally the only part of school I ever genuinely looked forward to), and I remember this not because of the relief that cascaded over my being as the realization of how I was not meant to face certain doom, but the fundamental dread that clung to me on the trip there.  

I don’t think this is a terribly unique experience, as evidenced by the colloquial phrase “getting called to the principal’s office” that you see in the context of work disciplinary events on shows like The Office or Parks and Rec. It’s a shared experience for many kids out there, and I think it really does translate into the modern world of knowledge work especially when we’re talking about the performance review. 

What causes performance review anxiety?

The traditional annual review is as close as we can get to getting called to the principal’s office as adults.  The outcomes even have similar proxies in our mind - you can get suspended or expelled (fired), or they can call your parents (HR) which is really extra miserable. Of course there can be neutral or positive outcomes as well, but our brain never thinks about those. 

“We never think about the award we might get or the praise that might be heaped upon in a time of success, all the unknowns manifest in anxiety around the negative outcomes. For lots of folks I’ve talked to about this - it’s not about whether you’d assess yourself as doing well or not, but the bulk of the anxiety comes from simply not knowing where you stand. It’s from a lack of information, not the result of an assessment, either imagined or real.”

This is why when we’re working with companies that are trying to fundamentally redesign their performance management process, we’re often focusing on a shift in transparency. Performance management processes are quite dense and (despite our best efforts) sometimes unavoidably complex, and there’s a variety of concepts to think about (this we talk about often in our content, Psychological Safety, Accountability, etc.). 

Transparency though, is one of the big ones that I think helps diffuse the anxiety bomb that employees minds can create when approaching a review. When I say transparency here, I’m specifically talking about the process and data used in a review conversation.  Of these two, I’m of the belief that the data weighs much more than the process in terms of influencing the anxiety of the employee. 

If you walked into a review with your manager tomorrow, what would you expect to be greeted with? 

If I asked you to pull up and show me the data about your performance that would be used in that review right now, could you do it easily? Is it something that’s accessible and viewable by yourself and your manager at any given time? If the answer to that question isn’t a yes, then you can quickly understand how someone might get anxious about exactly what will be referenced in a performance review.  

Now, let’s flip that around. 

Imagine you walk into an annual review, but in the days leading up to the formal review activity, months even, you could clearly see the precise data around what you’d accomplished and how you’re perceived by others as you accomplished it far ahead of time. You could see how this has changed over time in the lead up to the conversation, you could see the different questions or discussion points that would be covered in the review, and you could even see comments or thoughts from your manager far ahead of this event. You now have a new defense against that building anxiety of the review experience: You have time, you can plan, and you have facts as opposed to imagination. 

An example of a shared view of a 1:1 in Rhabit

Better performance management tools make for better experiences

This is precisely the approach we’ve taken with product design at Rhabit. We wanted to build tools for performance reviews that set forth this structure on behalf of the employee. We don’t want you to feel like you’re being called to the principal's office unexpectedly. We want you to feel that the process which holds you and the other people you work with accountable for their performance is a fair and transparent one, where the data that is used to evaluate you is easily accessed and viewed at any time, and that you have time to plan ahead for conversations that, whether you dread them or not, really do matter in the future of your career. 

If you’re leading others, you have to resist the feeling that there’s a loss of control or power by employees having a more current and continuous ability to get feedback and monitor their performance. Being able to reference the data that determines the level at which they’re performing in their roles should be seen as a right, not a privilege, to employees. This equity of information is something that can serve you as a leader very well, based on our observations with our customers. The fewer surprised in the review conversation, the less intense the emotionality of the experience, and the less intense the experience, the more likely you are to have a good outcome that can focus on support and development from where you and your employee are today as opposed to focusing on whether or not the assessment of performance is simply accurate in the first place. This is the power of transparency in a performance management process that’s well designed. 

If you’d like to talk to us about how you might implement this in your own company, we’d love to have a chat. Whether you use the awesome stuff we’ve built here at Rhabit, or something else, we’re always willing to help share our expertise, observations, and data around what companies are doing to drive high performance work environments that people find fulfilling.