Hire a curly wig and wave your pointy stick...

July 2, 2004

Hire a curly wig and wave your pointy stick if you want to improve your performance review and enhance your enjoyment of work, suggests Valerie Atkinson.

Come on, own up. There must be someone out there who understands the purpose of performance review. Or someone who could invent an acceptable rationale or two.

Possibilities proliferate: identifying training needs, ensuring accountability, linking performance with pay, encouraging departmental intercourse, to name but a few. Keeping track of elusive academics, perhaps? Okay, stick with the credible - appearing to keep track of elusive academics. Whatever the underlying purpose, a replacement for the old appraisal system was certainly regarded as essential, on the grounds that it tended to fail both employees and organisations by giving conflicting messages between encouragement and control. So? Nothing new there. Confuse and rule. Surely that is how most large organisations operate? But performance review should be different.

My own theory is that, in the first instance, it forces staff to leave their computers for half an hour and go have a conversation with someone real. Not that I have any objection to talking to virtual people; I do it all the time. Serves me right for working in a university. And reality can be so tricky these days, even for those of us in administrative posts who are optimistic enough to suppose that, since our minds are free from the clutter of intellectual turmoil, we are bound to have a better grasp of the prosaic.

But I digress. The most interesting aspect of performance review to emerge in my neck of the woods is the training. In the drive for equality (on one level, at least), reviewers are as likely to be support staff as they are senior academics, and training together can be such fun. Take role play.

Yes, take it. You may groan, cross both your arms and legs as tightly as possible and insist that nothing, absolutely nothing, will persuade you to demean yourself so, but in the end - if you let yourself go - you'll enjoy every minute of it. Who could resist taking on the role of a resentful researcher or a seductive secretary? Especially if you are a male academic in an advanced stage of cerebral burn-out and have always fancied a bit of female impersonation to liven up your wretched existence. Indeed, if institutions wanted to add an extra zing to training, they could introduce cross-dressing into the sessions, or even into the review itself, and lay on a supply of suspenders, dangly earrings, a few bow ties and a tuxedo or two, not forgetting the alpha male gorilla outfit.

As for the actual conduct of the review, improvisation is the key. Aspects of performance to be reviewed might include aptitude for inventing working parties of sub-committees of committees, all of which avoid the chore of taking any action; ability to engage in pointless paper trails and endless email arguments, thereby appearing very, very busy without ever doing anything; capacity for avoiding teaching, admin, deadlines and heads of department; facility for switching seamlessly from one type of website to another; flair for stretching the flex in flexitime beyond all previously known limits.

Personally, I recommend filling up the time by talking about David Beckham's performance (on the football pitch or anywhere else for that matter). That should keep you going and ensure a brisk exchange of ideas.

Or how about Michael Howard's performance, or Robbie Williams'? And stop pretending you don't know who Robbie Williams is. But if that makes you feel even more demeaned (either by knowing or not) you could certainly try something suitably highbrow. Try a Simon Rattle performance. See how much of Handel's Messiah you can get through in the appointed time. Hire a curly wig and wave your lecturing pointy stick thing about.

No, not that one.

Do anything you can to bring a smidgeon of humour to the occasion. Who knows - you might even find yourself enjoying your work more and performing better as a result.

Valerie Atkinson is department administrator at York University.

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