In my line of work, I sometimes run across—or into—discussions around “performance management,” which is a way of saying “how do you tell whether someone is doing their job?”

And in those conversations, I have seen it asked whether you are really evaluating performance effectively if you are generally not having to ask people to leave/firing them, which is also termed “managing them out,” an absolutely horrible term, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment here.

What’s interesting about this question is that it assumes both a certain mode of evaluating performance, and also a mode of “managing” that performance, neither of which I believe are productive ways to lead a team.

First, there are two relatively basic things I would like people to understand regarding how I believe you should evaluate individual performance for just about any role. They are:

  1. A person’s peak performance is not their sustainable performance.
  2. Performance should not be compared from one team member to another, but each person should be judged independently against set, defined criteria.

I hope to expound on this in future posts, but I believe these are core to evaluating people against their work ethically and fairly. It is enough for now to say that a person’s performance needs to be judged against previously agreed-upon and concretely-set criteria for the role, and not against the “time trial ghost” of their own previous work at a peak output, or against the other racers on the track.

Whether someone is effectively doing their job should only be evaluated against whether they are doing the job they have been asked to do.

To touch on the other point briefly: a lead should never elect to “manage someone out” except as a method of last resort. If I am someone’s lead, and either something is brought to my attention that may result in their eventual termination, or I (or they!) notice that their performance against that criteria has reached a critical point, the very next thing I should be saying to the team member is “yo, this is looking bad; how can I help you get this back into a positive state?”

A good leader doesn’t jump at the chance to remove someone from their position. A good leader communicates well and regularly with that person both to stop poor performance from happening in the first place, and partners with them to recover if they begin to falter.

In short: It is wrong to expect 100% from people all of the time. Don’t compare your team members to each other (you should also try to prevent them from self-evaluating this way). And don’t “manage people out;” lead them to results.

At the end of my work day today, I dropped from a Zoom call, ending the process of unofficially handing off the responsibility for coaching, helping, and advocating for the members of the team I lead at work to one of their peers, who will be stepping in for me over the summer while I take my (overdue) sabbatical.

(She’ll be officially taking over leadership of the team when I sign off for the summer in a couple of weeks, and the team is in great hands.)

What remains at this point is the intangible stuff that you need to do to put things in a good place while you’ll be out for an extended amount of time: locating the “hidden work” you do every day, every week, every month, shining lights on those things, and asking for folks to step up and perpetuate things you have set in motion.

It’s a very different process than the one I went through almost seven years ago when I took my first sabbatical, and I wasn’t yet in a position of hierarchical leadership.

It was remarked during one of these calls today that I have spent more time preparing to leave for three months and come back than most people spend preparing places for their leaving permanently. I suppose that’s just natural, given that I am returning to work after my sabbatical break, and will step back into a position of being accountable for at least some of the things I have set aside while I’m out.

But I also think that—and this is one of the reasons I very much like the benefit of the sabbatical every five years—it’s a very good thing to remove specific pieces from the board every so often. It gives them a chance to recharge, relax, and refresh; to reevaluate their values and goals and then come back with renewed purpose.

It also gives the team a chance to find out what that person has been doing that’s not necessarily been obvious the entire time. Every one of us has things we pick up and run with at work that we just do, and we don’t necessarily crow about it or otherwise draw attention to that fact. It’s good to remove that presence from the equation for a bit, to see where the “missing information” is at.

What’s trapped in my brain that others could use in their day-to-day? What do I need to write out or explain for others that I’ve taken for granted? What approaches and thinking have I brought to the table that will now be missing?

The first time sabbatical came up, I was super-hesitant to take it, because I didn’t fully understand the proper questions to ask. Instead, I was asking things like “what if they find they don’t need me, and I come back and they say ‘dude; you weren’t needed around here, sorry!’” It turns out that’s not the right way to look at it, but instead see it as an opportunity to get some rest while the team looks at things from a slightly different angle for a while. Again: it’s healthy for both groups of people.

So mid-May begins another adventure: a huge benefit that I’m happy to receive from my employer.

It’s going to be a busy next couple of weeks, but I’m looking forward to unmooring myself from those things and taking some time to drift over the summer, spending extra time with my wife and children.