Australian software company Atlassian has reworked its employee reviews in an effort to weed out so-called ‘brilliant jerks’, the firm has announced.
In an 18 July blog post,  the firm’s global head of talent Bek Chee explained that traditional reviews often feel like an ‘annual ambush’ that instantly put people on edge, as their target area is primarily individual. However, Chee argues: “An ambush is the exact opposite of what a performance review should feel like. They are supposed to help you understand how you’re contributing to the overall success of the company and identify growth opportunities for the coming year. Unfortunately, for many people, they’re too little, too late, and not holistic enough.”
Following an extensive testing period, including a soft launch last year, Atlassian’s review system now evaluates staff in the context of three pillars:
- expectation of the role;
- contribution to the team, and
- demonstration of company values.
Chee stressed: “This performance system is also designed to mitigate the cognitive biases that affect managers’ ability to fairly rate each person’s performance.”
Elaborating on her new system in an article at News.com.au,  Chee explained: “We recognise things are not the way they used to be – yet companies haven’t evolved [from] 30 years ago when they were primarily made up often of white men. Tech standards have evolved. We have new ways of working, new demographics and generational change … We wanted to make sure we were rewarding the right behaviours.”
In particular, she noted: “One of the things we wanted to make sure we accounted for was the ‘brilliant jerk’ — people who are extremely bright and talented with respect to the way they execute their role, but aren’t necessarily concerned with the impact they have on others. We want to make sure our system prevented that.”
Chee said that the new system was “not about people being shuffled out” of Atlassian, but about assessing the totality of an employee’s contribution in the round. She noted: “We know the next generation are very socially conscious. They have a different set of expectations … They don’t want to hear a company say, ‘You can bring your whole self to work, we’re diverse, we’re socially conscious’, and not have that backed up.”
What can other leaders learn from the approach that Chee has taken?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The traditional approach to appraisals has been under scrutiny for some time now. One of its biggest challengers is Dr Tim Baker, who as far back as 2013 published The End of the Performance Review – a book that called for innovation in the way we evaluate our staff.  It’s often the case that the individuals Chee refers to as ‘jerks’ bring skills and capabilities to organisations that are somewhat scarce. But organisations aren’t just about technical knowhow. They’re about relationships – whether with colleagues, customers or suppliers.”
Cooper stresses: “I would argue that, if you’re not able to relate to others, then you’re not very good at your job. You can’t just say, ‘I’m really good at what I do, but I’m not so great when it comes to people.’ Because increasingly, jobs are about people, and working cooperatively and collaboratively. One of the most powerful responses to complexity and ambiguity is to face them down with a host of different viewpoints and ways of looking at things. And when we consider the sheer amount of information that’s out there about our various professional fields, we couldn’t possibly sift through that all by ourselves.
“With that in mind, Atlassian’s identification of those three pillars is hugely constructive. It urges staff to think about not just what they’re bringing in terms of technical capabilities, but how they’re influencing, and aligning with, the organisational context around them. In order to be successful at a role, yes, you must have a strong grasp of the relevant, technical skills. But you must also be able to relate to all the people with whom you come into regular contact, and live the organisation’s values. If one of those three factors is out of joint, then the whole isn’t right either. And that’s where the attention, support, encouragement and development opportunities that should stem from employee reviews are needed.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on managing performance