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Lesson 4: (VaYechi) – “Judah is a lion’s whelp”—Making the most of performance evaluations
“Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.” — Frank A. Clark
“And Jacob called his sons and said, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come” Genesis 49:1.
“All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve in number, and this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell, addressing to each a blessing appropriate to him” Genesis 49:28.
Before his death, Jacob called all his sons, heads of tribes, to bless them with personal messages that address their character and appear to foretell their future (their career trajectory). Some of these poetic verses allude to past events as indications of what can be expected from them, often relying on colorful images, such as metaphors invoking flora and fauna (e.g., Judah is a lion’s whelp [48:9], Dan, a serpent [48:17], Naftali is a hind let loose [48:21], Joseph a fruitful vine [48:22], and Benjamin, a ravenous wolf [48:27]).
Among the biblical commentators seeking to decipher the intentions of these blessings, Abarbanel viewed each description as a reflection of Jacob’s assessment of his sons’ potential for leadership for the next generation and beyond. Some of these “blessings” may have sounded harsh to the expectant son. However, we can only assume that if the evaluation was expressed sincerely, credibly, and constructively, even evaluations unpleasant to the ear could be viewed as a “blessing” that offers useful insights, triggering self-reassessment and behavior change. Indeed, in a saying attributed to Fred “Mister” Rogers, “Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work, but it’s worth the effort.”
Performance evaluation season at work can be a disquieting period. It’s often a mandatory calendar event that both sides––management and employees––would be happy to skip. The participants may be apprehensive of confrontation, have difficulty being authentic, and see no practical value in the meeting. (Do they bring back memories of parent-teacher meetings?––“Suzi could do so much better if she only applied herself”). However, if the organization maintains the proper attitude and all sides are on board, performance evaluation can be a career-boosting event for all involved.
Performance evaluations comprise a potentially unsettling experience associated with “anxiety, overload pressures, arousal, and self-esteem issues.”  Much can be riding on a quarterly or year-end supervisor’s evaluation, such as promotion prospects, pay, and even job retention. Many evaluation systems are on the market, indicating the lack of an ideal format. Small organizations typically schedule a session with the direct supervisor to periodically review the employee’s performance measures. However, some performance criteria can be ambiguous, even when derived from objective measures, and conclusions can be based on a hefty dose of subjectivity. Larger organizations have sought to minimize (but not eliminate) this subjectivity by adopting a 360-degree evaluation methodology or components thereof, eliciting feedback from multiple sources, such as management, colleagues, self, and even customers.
As in job interviews, supervisors and employees should approach the session prepared, acknowledging strengths, shortcomings, and changes from previous evaluation periods. If this event is interactive, a conversation could ensue to better understand the other’s goals and expectations and offer constructive ideas for performance enhancement.
A word about Millennials: Employers have discovered that performance reviews may not be a one-size-fits-all proposition. Millennials are typically not committed to continuing in their current workplace until retirement. The implications of this are two-fold: On the one hand, the performance reviewer faces the challenge of ‘talent retention’ for desirable employees; on the other, Millennials may look forward to candid feedback to help them acquire new skills or improve existing ones to enhance their employability for future work opportunities. Thus, while often comfortable with receiving feedback, Millennials may not want to wait for an annual or semi-annual meeting––this pace may be too slow for them. They are open to expanding their skills and welcome accolades for exceptional work. Consequently, frequent formal or informal performance feedback can be appreciated as guideposts for the individual’s development. With Millennials, then, employers or supervisors can anticipate engaging their workers in a more participatory, two-way encounter than in a formal top-down session.
Points to Ponder:
- Among various “tips” given to evaluators and those evaluated are the use of metaphors and analogies to illustrate the supervisor’s description of the employee’s performance. This recalls the technique Jacob applied to evaluate his sons. However, metaphors need to be crafted carefully (e.g., “you seem to have a short fuse,” “you are the Lion King of your team,” “you tend to over-focus, so try to apply a wider lens,” “some of our legal clients are pleased to tell me you are a wolf in sheep’s clothing”). Metaphors are simplified concepts or images that can have a huge impact because they essentially comprise a mini-story that will remain with the listener. Stacy Barr has applied metaphors and analogies to performance evaluations; for instance, to impart the message that a performance measurement’s purpose is to promote continuous improvement, she suggests the metaphor: “Measuring performance is a health plan, not a post-mortem.”
- When you are being evaluated, be sure not to get defensive. Remember, this needs to be an adult-adult conversation, not a parent-child transaction. Regressing to a tit-for-tat conversation mode will likely sabotage the session for both participants. For instance, if your employer or supervisor neglected to cite your part in the organization’s recent drive, or if you hear any inaccurate assumptions or conclusions, you can gently ‘update’ them at the meeting or wait to write them a brief update when your mood improves.
- Try this: Since performance evaluation meetings are consequential, preparing for them is critical. Steps you can take before the meeting could include collecting reports and supplementary data (statistical and anecdotal), identifying trends, collecting client feedback, and formulating plans for the future. It would be wise to begin a work portfolio where memorable accomplishments can be archived and easily accessible. It will also improve your mood during suboptimal times at work.
 Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel (1437–1508) was a Portuguese Jewish statesman, philosopher, Bible commentator, and financier.
 Patriotta, G., & Brown, A. (2011). Sensemaking, metaphors and performance evaluation, Scandinavian Journal of Management, 27(1), 34-43. p. 35.
 Millennials are considered those born roughly during the last two decades of the 20th century.
 Barr, S. (2022). Performance measurement metaphors to get people engaged. Stacy Barr, the performance measure specialist. https://www.staceybarr.com/measure-up/performance-measurement-metaphors-to-get-people-engaged/