The power of appraisal. An appraisal of power

A routine aspect of working life for most organisations is performance management, and one aspect of performance management is the annual or bi-annual appraisal process (called many things including performance reviews, staff development reviews etc).  The effectiveness of this method of reviewing and ‘managing’ performance remains open to debate (Baker, T., 2013).

I performed the following poem with a colleague at an arts based conference in Slovenia in 2016. The poem deals  with the experience of the appraisal interview from the perspective of the manager as well as the member of staff being appraised.  I tried to draw on Steven Berkoff’s theatrical approach and his commitment to the use of rhythm, repetition and silence to explore the power dynamics, the unspoken agendas, prejudices, thoughts and desires of both parties and the personal impact of such an interaction and process.  As the two characters, we revealed aspects of ourselves directly to the audience.

Baker (2013) describes appraisal meetings as potentially resulting on one-way monologues, and so I wanted to develop a performance where each party is locked into their own monologue, not always hearing or reacting to the other until finally some powerful conversation takes place…..

The performance  also drew on aspects of Brechtian theatre, playing directly to the audience and critically appraising the process of the appraisal, from the perspectives of power, truth and pain.

Ref: Baker, T (2013) The End of the Performance Review: A New Approach to Appraising Employee Performance Palgrave Macmillan

Appraiser (to be referred to as 1)

Appraisee (to be referred to as 2)

1.

I’m doing an SDR today

Appraisal, performance review, and I may

Be some time in this room, getting very hot

Move my table to one side and make sure there’s not

A barrier between the two of us so

We can’t share our perspectives, can’t use the GROW

Model.  Goal and reality, options, that stuff

Have I moved the chairs and the table enough?

All the papers will be on my lap here, I think

And when he comes in here I’ll get him a drink

Just some water, to put by his chair, and by mine,

On the floor – yes – I think the whole thing will be fine

2.

I’m sitting here

Outside her door

She’ll call me in

Just like before

She’ll move her desk

She’ll gaze at me

I wonder if it’s me she’ll see

I don’t need this

My life’s a mess

Things going on

Causing me stress

My job and I

We rub along

See eye to eye

I’m right, it’s wrong

Don’t need this talk

A wasted day

I wish this ache

Would go away

1.

My greeting is calm and I’m smiling at him

I’m trying my best to be warm, welcoming

My stomach turns over, my face feels quite hot

The paperwork, chairs and the water – forgot

To open the window, to let in the air

We can’t breathe in this workplace – I wave at his chair.

An abandoned, relaxed and ‘wherever’ type wave

He responds with a sigh and sits down.  Must be brave.

2.

I’m sitting here

Inside her door

She’s waved me in

And what is more

She’s pointed me

Towards my chair

I’m sitting here

She’s over there

Her papers slipped

Both of us sipped

Water, just now.

The floor’s too low.

She’s breathing in

We will begin

1.

No table is reckless!  My papers just slipped!

I tried to look calm as I bent down and sipped

At my water, as he did.  I don’t think he saw

The mild panic in my face – or did he ignore

It, or laugh at me, inwardly, knowing that I

Am no good at this process – I don’t know quite why.

I’m the boss, I’m in charge and the ball’s in my court

I’ll keep things professional, focused and short

2.

She smiles at me

God, make this quick

Tell me it’s good

Then maybe pick

An area for

‘Development’

Something to change

To ‘implement’.

Some this or that

Some bla bla bla

Then do the notes

My mind is far

Away from here

This heated tomb

This strip-lit,

Suffocating room

1.

I’ll say something good.  Then I’ll tackle the ‘weak’

I’ll leave lots of silences so he can speak

I’ll summarise, reflect back, use my EQ

I’ve been on the training course – know what to do.

His expression is blank and he stares past my face

At the picture of me and the kids in some place

By the sea – it’s my favourite – in a white frame

I wish I were there now, playing a game  

With them both, like we used to – with a beach ball

I wasn’t at home when they learned how to crawl…

2.  

Her and her kids

I wonder where?

Looks lovely – wish

That I were there.

She finally died

A long, slow death

I wasn’t there

For her last breath

I was at work

In open plan

Doing some stuff

Don’t think I can

Remember what.

I didn’t leave.

Waited till six

Then time to grieve.

1.

It’s been a hard year, and of course he won’t know

That demands on my time have made me feel quite low

It’s the loneliness really, the feeling that I

Should know how, should be good, shouldn’t have to ask why.

I am smiling at him and I’m building rapport

Open question, I’ll listen –I can’t do much more

“How’s it been? The past few months? What’s good and what’s not?

“How are things for you?  Why, where, when, who and what?”

(The six honest serving men – working a treat

He’s looking at me now – perhaps more upbeat?

And preparing to share with me how things have been

Open questions are marvellous – help you to glean

Information and get things kicked off, so they say

I wish I had worn something cooler today).

2.

So how’s it been?

Well it’s been shit

I won’t say that

I don’t want it

To last too long

Some platitudes

Say nothing wrong

No attitude

She’s very flushed

I’m very tired

She’s trying hard

To be admired.

“It’s been okay

A few hiccups

But we’ve coped well

With the mixups

And things have worked

At least I guess

They have because

There’s no real mess”.

At least not here

In this white box

Where thin, straight arrows

Join the dots

And boxes filled

With acronyms

And reports

Made of antonyms

And meetings

Full of synonyms

Keep it objective

Keep things clear

Anaesthetise me

From the fear

Of death and dying

And the stress

Of loneliness

There’s no real mess.

1.

He’s opening up, making things flow quite well

And he’s mentioned the mix-ups so no need to dwell

On the problems for too long, I’m pleased about that

That’s the difficult part for me, having to chat

About weaknesses, failings, development needs

I always feel nervous in case this precedes

Some discussions about my own management style

And some truths which will hurt, that I’ll take with a smile

But remind me of things said about me before

When I left home for work –“ Need to see you some more

Need to see you and talk with you – put down your phone

You sit in your office, you’re working alone,

What’s the work for exactly when we are left here

With no sense of a future – your input is rare”.

I’m feeling so fragile – a lump in my throat

I’m worried that he will use some anecdote

To uncover a failure, weakness on my part

I’ve tried so hard lately – don’t want him to start

Picking holes, raising issues, exposing my flaws

They’re not my fault, actually. I’m not the cause.

He’s annoying me, judging me, taking the lead

None of this is my fault – it’s not what I need.

2.

Her face is red

Her eyes look wet

Don’t understand

Now I regret

The mention of

The mix-ups when

I said that things

Were fine and then

I used the word

‘Mess’ to describe

The state of things

Not as a jibe.

I’ve upset her

She’s at a loss

I’ve said something

To make her cross

I’ll rescue things

I’ll try my best….

1.

I need to get

Things off my chest

He asks too much

As they all do

I try so hard

I’m human too.

I’m sitting here

He’s sitting there

He’s so relaxed

Hasn’t a care

It’s not my fault

I just can’t find

The time for them

I’m so behind

With work and mail

And all the stuff

I have to do

I’ve had enough.

2.

I’m not sure what is happening here in this room

Was it something I said?  Did I say things too soon?

She’s uneasy, distracted, unsettled, am I

Such a difficult subject? I just don’t know why

We are putting ourselves through this painful process

When I see in her face that she cares even less

Than I do, and it troubles her, haunts her to be

My manager, desperately managing me.

Doing all of the things the books say that she should

Saying the things that she really hoped would

Bring us closer, as colleagues, more empathy, then

I would be more engaged, more productive, again.

Doesn’t work that way, does it? No meeting of minds,

No heart in it, soul in it, two of a kinds.

You see life is more messy than charts can portray

And plans are derailed in a moment, a day

There is life and there’s death and there’s stuff in between

She died, I was here, sitting behind my screen

Doing stuff, moving papers and playing with words

There is life, there is death and then there’s the absurd.

1.

He doesn’t know

How much I long

To laugh, to cry

Do something wrong.

Let down my guard

Look in his eyes

Tell him about

The bright blues skies

In Crete. We were

On holiday

Long time ago

There’s not a day

When I don’t wish

For less of this

And more of that

To throw away

My thinking hat

All six of them

No strategy

No vision, mission,

Place to be

Except with them

Away from here

No judgement, failure,

Tension, fear

2.

Our words fall on the floor in this white painted tomb

On the cord carpet, soaking up crap in this room

In a day we won’t know what we said or agreed

But she’ll write it down, just in case, so we won’t need

To recall it, we can’t because we both don’t care

For the record we’ll have it, the words from thin air.

She is anxious, I’m bored, she is not in control

She’s the boss, but she’s not, she is playing a role

I’ll agree, I will nod and I’ll give her her due

I’ll accept words of wisdom, agree with them too

She’s ok – she’s just doing a job that they say

Is the job she must do – they have shown her the way

It’s the ‘human relations’ school, Y theory stuff

To relate to a human – why is it so tough?

In this box, on this carpet, a plasterboard place

Where feelings are hidden and we wear the face

That we hung on the hook when we got home last night

That we put on each morning.  The mask is too tight.

Take it off, take it off – which one of us will be

The first one, the brave one – Me? Should it be me?

1. (To him)

You seem okay

I wish I knew

About your life

And about you

Don’t want to cross

Professional lines

But in your eyes

I see some signs

That I would like

To understand

Hope you don’t mind

This isn’t planned.

2. (To her)

Your kids look cute.

The picture’s nice

The place you’re in

Like paradise.

Wish I were there

Things have been tough

Since losing her

It is enough

To just get up

And face the day

I’m sitting here

Nothing to say

1. (to him)

Sometimes you wish

I’d go away?

And as for me

I miss those days

I miss the freedom

Miss the ways

We used to play

I miss it all

You missed her death

I missed them crawl.

2. (to her)

And in this box

We choose to crawl

We slowly die

Inside, and all

Our wounds and cracks

Are taped and bound

To stop the light,

To mute the sounds

Of tears and laughter

Joy and pain

Let in the light

Let’s live again

1. (to him)

You do your work

And I’ll do mine

We’ll meet and talk

Things will be fine

Tell me the truth

I’m only me

I’ll write stuff down

For you to see

But it’s my guess

That what we say

We will remember

Anyway.

2. (to her)

We will remember

Anyway

You seem alright.

You seem okay.

I will remember this, today.

1.(to him)

You seem alright

You seem okay

Thank you.

I think we found a way.

I will remember this, today.

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6 Comments

  1. This is really powerful Jenny, and virtually sums up every performance review I have had over a long working life. Except that we never got to the human interaction bit at the end. It has always been a performance from both of us, though; my boss pretending to listen, and pretending that all the undertakings will be honoured, when we both know they won’t. And I express false gratitude, all the while acknowledging inwardly what a crock it all is. You brilliantly portray the sad games we play, highlighting at the same time everything that is wrong with the corporate world (and us). And unfortunately that increasingly includes education in its current guise.

  2. Thank you Jenny.
    I’ve undertaken many appraisals, PDRs, SDRs, over the years, both as appraisor and appraisee. This captures the human experience so well; particularly if the working relationship is deficient.
    The poignancy of their mutually exclusive, yet deep-felt grief for lost life:work balance cuts to the quick.
    Bravissima!
    Carolyn x

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