A Festivus for the Rest of Us: Seinfeld and Annual Performance Reviews

We’re getting to that time of year where it is apparent that Frank Costanza’s dream of a new and widely-celebrated holiday, Festivus, has been realized. Little did we know that Festivus has insidiously crept into our ritual of the Annual Performance Review.

For the uninitiated, Festivus was popularized in 1997 through the show Seinfeld. A quick and entertaining primer on Festivus can be found here. Originally conceived as a reaction to the commercial and religious aspects of Christmas, Festivus emerged as a judgement on the worth of an individual. The crucial elements of Festivus are:

  1. Feats of strength
  2. An airing of grievances, and critically…
  3. A plain aluminum pole

So, how are we celebrating Festivus through our Annual Performance Review process? Like Festivus, Annual Performance Reviews feature feats of strength – the reviewee (often through a “self-review”) must demonstrate how they are a critical piece to the organization. Also, like Festivus, most managers treat the annual review as an opportunity for “an airing of grievances.” This is when the manager gets the full attention and opportunity to enter into record the flaws and foibles of the reviewee. Frank Constanza made audio recordings of George’s humiliations – we usually just need to send something to HR… Needless to say, both Festivus and the Annual Performance Review are often awkward, embarrassing, sometimes end in tears, and we can only really stomach them once a year.

Do we need Festivus? Do we need Annual Performance Reviews? Their proponents will tell you that they are a critical evaluation tool – how else can we know who should get a raise or be promoted? Many organizations have abandoned the Annual Review (including GE, Deloitte, and Adobe amongst others).

So, what are we left with as managers? How can we make people realize the errors of their ways? The central premise of an annual review is flawed in many ways. It is virtually impossible to have evenly applied reviews across different functions with vastly different job requirements or across different individual managers with unique perspectives. Morale consistently declines after a review. Finally, similar to our insight into Frank Constanza, reviews usually tell us a lot more about the person doing the rating rather than the person being rated.

Changing the Annual Performance Review

The alternative to the Annual Performance Review (and Festivus) requires a change in perspective. To set a baseline, organizations exist to coordinate scarce resources (people and money) against a clear objective. As such, a manager must align organizational, team, and individual objectives for maximum impact.

1)   Commit to communication on organization direction and actions

Providing this context gives the individual an opportunity to place their efforts in relation to the direction of the organization. Tools like CrossLead are specifically designed to increase the speed of information within the organization and understanding of how individuals and teams support the organization’s objectives.

2)   Understand the individual’s objectives

To optimize the role of an individual in the organization, individuals have to understand what’s in it for them. They are looking for three things:

  • To financially support themselves (and their families)
  • To achieve a sense of fulfillment (which can be very broadly interpreted)
  • To create new (financial and skill) opportunities for themselves

3)   Tie organizational and individual objectives together

To do this well, consider how a person’s duties and objectives give them an opportunity to achieve their aspirations.

4)   Give feedback that reinforces good performance and remains consistent with overall goals

Improving performance and reinforcing good performance needs to include:

  • Actionable feedback that is given frequently enough that it’s no longer awkward for the giver or receiver
  • Feedback that indicates both what a person does well and opportunities for improvement
  • How their performance reinforces the organization’s goals

Even if your organization persists in the Festivus-like Annual Performance Review, consider how you can enhance performance reviews by taking these ideas into consideration.

And if you’ve decided that Festivus is actually the right holiday for you, it’s coming up on December 23rd. Pick up your Festivus pole today on Amazon!

(It turns out Festivus actually started with the parent of one of Seinfeld’s writers, Daniel O’Keefe – https://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/19/fashion/fooey-to-the-world-festivus-is-come.html)


By Matt Sitter

Matt is Chief Customer Success Officer for CrossLead, Inc. He advises C-level and executive staffs on operations, communications, organizational development, and strategic alignment. Matt’s experience spans leadership roles across multiple functions in the healthcare industry and management consulting. His passions are to make organizations, teams, and leaders the best they can be and building a healthier world through technology.

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