Finally, a performance review designed to weed out “brilliant jerks”

Individual achievements are not all that counts.
Individual achievements are not all that counts.
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Of the many reasons to hate traditional performance reviews, perhaps a less obvious one is that they tend to work to the benefit of brilliant jerks. That’s because reviews typically focus on individual achievements, rather than how employees work with, and treat, their colleagues. And so the jerks keep gaining power and influence, leaving a trail of resignations, lost productivity, bathroom-stall breakdowns, and publicity fiascos (paywall) in their wake.

Atlassian, an Australian-based software company with 3,300 employees globally, has an idea for how to break this cycle. It recently rolled out a new type of performance review, 18 months in the making, in which employees’ contributions to their team and company culture actually receive more weight than their personal accomplishments.

“In tech, code is often king or queen,” says Bek Chee, Atlassian’s head of talent, who joined the company about two and a half years ago and previously worked at companies including Nike and Microsoft. But a single-minded focus on coding skills can wind up perpetuating environments that are downright dysfunctional.

“We’re saying we want to combat that culture by saying [behavior] really does matter,” Chee says. “If you want to work for Atlassian and write great code, you also have to live the values in a respectful way.”

Atlassian has some first-hand experience dealing with the repercussions of jerk behavior. In 2014, the company offered a public apology after an Atlassian engineer gave a presentation at a developer conference in which he compared software to a girlfriend who “looks beautiful,” “complains a lot,” and “interrupts me when I’m working.”

Atlassian’s new performance review framework evaluates employees across three categories: a “demonstration of values” (looking at behaviors such as transparent and constructive communication and actively seeking opportunities to help others); “delivery on role expectations” (measuring at individual achievements); and “contribution to the team” (focused explicitly on how the employee interacts with and treats others).

Each category is equally weighted, supporting the idea, Chee says, that the way in which people deliver their work matters just as much as the end product. To those who might argue that high performance sometimes requires a tough approach, or that lashing out at others is sometimes justified in order to achieve excellence, Chee says that Atlassian ascribes to the “radical candor” philosophy popularized by former Apple and Google executive Kim Scott, which holds that it’s perfectly possible to give direct feedback (Quartz membership exclusive) without being unkind. “You should still have the conversation and the conflict, but you don’t have to be a jerk about it,” Chee says.

The new review format is meant to put a check on bad behavior. But it’s also designed to reward employees who play a big role in making Atlassian a happy and functional place to work by doing things like mentoring younger staffers, pitching in on other people’s projects, or taking on administrative work beyond the scope of their job description to help keep the office running smoothly. That’s the kind of invisible, uncredited work that’s often performed by women and underrepresented minorities, and as laid out in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article by Joan C. Williams, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, and Marina Multhaup, a former research and policy fellow at Hastings’ Center for WorkLife Law.

While the labor that happens outside the spotlight is both necessary and valuable, companies often fail to take notice of it. Part of the solution, as Williams and Multhaup argue, involves managers taking care to distribute plum assignments and unglamorous assignments equitably among employees. But it’s equally important for companies to acknowledge and reward quieter work that helps others.

At Atlassian, Chee says, the new performance review format “says to the people who are volunteering, ‘The work you’re doing that’s connecting all of us? That’s valued.’”