Performance reviews don’t embrace mistakes

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Jun 24

When it comes to performance reviews, results matter. Successful results. You don’t get rated higher on your performance review for your failures or for your mistakes.

Yet, when you look at what it takes to grow, you must get out of your comfort zone at work (and in life) and embrace that which is given to you — greater responsibilities, different work, new teams to perform the work.

Stretching your comfort zone means mistakes

As a child, we are constantly told that “practice makes perfect” and that we need to make mistakes in what we do because that is how we learn. Making mistakes becomes a liability only when we don’t learn from our mistakes.

Innovation, for example, requires many, many mistakes and false steps to get to the point of getting to success. Thomas Edison was famously quoted about how many times he failed to create a light bulb, but in today’s business, I don’t think he would have been around to brag about it. Nor would a light bulb been invented.

Companies don’t care about your growth and penalize you for mistakes

Companies don’t tolerate mistakes. When your performance review time comes around, what does your manager focus on? How great you kicked the goal out of the park or the three mistakes you made getting there? Indeed, company management wants you to consistently perform at a high level with associated high levels of perfection.

The paradox of growth and mistakes

In a sobering paradox on leadership in Fortune, Geoff Colvin notes:

Research has established that what turns average performers into great performers is a process of being continually pushed just beyond their current abilities, and then responding to the new challenges with focused efforts to overcome them, accompanied by abundant feedback about the results.

But constantly attempting what you can’t quite do, which is the essence of the process, is a recipe for trouble in most jobs. It means that you will inevitably make mistakes and have failures. Now if you ask accomplished businesspeople, as I have often done, whether they learned more from their successes or their failures, 100% of them will say the latter. But most employers don’t want to hear that your mistakes have been an absolutely necessary part of your growth. They just want you to perform.

So that’s what most people do in their jobs, operating entirely within their comfort zones and as a result not getting any better. We know this not just from observing it in our own workplaces but also from considerable research showing that most people improve rapidly in the early days of a given job, then plateau, and may continue for years thereafter without progressing.

This, then, is the challenge: how can management embrace the mistakes from pushing the envelope of our job performance in the performance review when nothing in the culture supports it?