Performance Evaluations and Yom Kippur


Yom Kippur is the climax of a 40 day period of self-evaluation and repentance. The period kicks into high gear with Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year, nine days earlier. The process suffers from some of the same challenges that we face as managers with annual performance evaluations.

I hate this period, and I know many others who hate it as well (and no, it’s not just the fasting). There’s 2 weeks of “Slichot” where we beat ourselves up pretty good for a host of sins we may or may not have done. Then Yom Kippur with ten repetitions throughout the day of “We’ve been guilty, we’ve betrayed, we’ve robbed, we’ve slandered …” (in Hebrew it follows the ABCs, which makes it no less annoying). And eight sets of 44 lines of “And for the sins we committed before you through [baseless hatred / obstinance / slander / begrudging eye / haughtiness …].” While striking our chests with each statement. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any of this, but the dominant theme of the day seems to be “we suck, we truly suck, let me count the ways.”

One piece of good news (for me, anyway). The people who currently lead the main prayers for the “High Holidays” in our community have beautiful inviting voices and tunes, and have somehow replaced the awe and trepidation with a greater feeling of love, inspiration, and connection. Which is a very good start, but I digress.

Tom Peters once said that it takes the average American worker 6 months to recover from each performance evaluation. In my experience, he’s about right. I summed up my view in Performance Evaluations: The 5 Do’s and Don’ts. Making it all scary and negative would definitely be a don’t.

Now I’m sure that more liberal branches of Judaism are less negative about this, but I accept Orthodox Judaism’s principles regarding Jewish Law and tradition. And to clarify, I’m not looking for softer expectations. I’m looking for something more in the lines of “With great power comes great responsibility” in a Chris Robertson type of voice.

One of the few prayers prescribed in the Bible includes “I have also given it [a tithe] to the Levite, the proselyte, to the orphan, and to the widow, according to the commandments You commanded me; I have not transgressed any of your commandments and I have not forgotten … I have hearkened to the voice of Hashem, my G-d, I have acted according to everything You commanded me.” And it then asks for G-d to keep his part of the contract “… Bless Your people Israel, and the land that You gave us, as You swore to our forefathers …”

Now that’s a prayer. That’s a contract. That’s standing up with pride, accepting responsibility, and demanding the relationship He promised.

How different than Ecclesiastes‘ “because who is man that can be righteous and not sin” that has unfortunately dominated too much of religious discourse since.

And if our prayers can include admissions of sins that our community committed, surely it can also include statements of good things that we just as surely did.

I love Frank Sinatra’s My Way, because of lines like “To say the things he truly feels / and not the words of one who kneels.” A gentle dig at the religious impulse to focus on our faults and not our successes and potential.

But religions’ impulse towards regret and self-negation need not limit us. Yes, rituals surrounding spinning dead chickens over our heads generally last centuries longer than rituals about — say — doing a personal SWOT analysis, or listing our successes and failures for last year and our goals for next year.

But we can view that as simply a challenge for what we need to add. Jewish tradition tells us that our ancestor was called Israel because he wrestled with G-d, and was successful. It is the religious Jew’s duty to constantly wrestle with tradition, with humility (and IMO while observing it), and making sure he or she is doing what needs to be done. It’s a cop-out to not to do what needs to be done just because the Rabbis never commanded it.

So with this post I hope to initiate a year of far greater self-reflection, self-evaluation, and self-improvement. This blog is about management … but religion and management are often confronting the same challenges, and often offering similar solutions.

So today maybe I’ll sing My Way and read Rudyard Kipling‘s If. And finish this blog post and resolve for a year of greater soul searching and self-improvement (can you do me a favor and join the conversation?). And then I’ll enter the fast and attempt to come closer to G-d through the traditional methods and with the community.

So to this site’s readers (both of you), whether you’re Jewish or not, I wish you a day and a year of successful self-evaluation and improvement. Of confronting our weaknesses and overcoming them. Of recognizing our strengths and getting more out of them. Of standing tall, recognizing our potential, and improving our lives and our world. May we all have a great year.

PostScript: During the Seudah Mafseket (the meal before the fast) I told my family that I wanted us to use the meal to discuss what we would like to change for next year. They told me we do that every year. We expanded it a bit, saying what we think we did right, what we did wrong, what we’d like to accomplish next year, and even what we appreciate about each other. Generally, I think that’s often the best strategy when you somehow can’t accomplish the goals through the established rituals. Supplement / surround the ritual with something new. I intended to do something similar in the post-Yom Kippur meal, but the migraine headache that came on late in the fast made that impossible. Oh well. Maybe next year.