top of page

Post #14 (VaYechi) - "Dan shall be a serpent by the road"—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, now 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 in the future, 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 by the road [48:17], Naftali is a hind let loose [48:21], Joseph a fruitful vine [48:22], and Benjamin, a ravenous wolf [48:27]). The sons were left to decipher these somewhat cryptic word pictures and learn from them.

Among the biblical commentators seeking to decipher the intentions of these blessings, Abarbanel[1] viewed each description as a reflection of Jacob's agenda, which was to rate each on the criterion of their potential for leadership. Some of these "blessings" may have sounded harsh to the expectant son. However, we can only assume that if the evaluations were expressed sincerely, credibly, and constructively, even appraisals that are at first jarring to the ear could ultimately be treasured as offering useful insights that could trigger self-reassessment and even 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 disquieting. It's often a calendar event that both management and employees would be happy to circumvent. The participants may be apprehensive of confrontation, find it hard to be authentic, and see no practical value in the meeting. (Do they trigger those memorable parent-teacher meetings?––"Jane 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 and a win-win for all parties.

Performance evaluations comprise a potentially unsettling experience associated with "anxiety, overload pressures, arousal, and self-esteem issues."[2] Much can be riding on a quarterly or year-end supervisor's evaluation, such as promotion prospects, pay, and even job retention. A myriad of evaluation systems are on the market, indicating there is no single 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 ostensibly 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, including management, colleagues, self, and even customers.

As in job interviews, these sessions should not be spontaneous; they require preparation by both participants. Strengths, shortcomings, and changes from previous evaluation periods should all be acknowledged. If this encounter is interactive, a candid dialogue could ensue to better understand the other's goals and expectations and offer constructive ideas for performance enhancement. After all, as in an adage attributed to Simon Sinek, "Managers work to see numbers grow. Leaders work to see people grow."

A word about Millennials [3]: 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 till 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 anticipate frank feedback to help them acquire new skills or improve existing ones to enhance their employability for future work opportunities.

Thus, as Millennials are relatively comfortable with receiving feedback, they may not want to wait for their annual or semi-annual meetings––this pace may be too slow for them. They are open to expanding their skills and welcome accolades for work well done. Consequently, frequent formal or informal performance feedback can be appreciated as guideposts for the individual's development. With Millennials, then, employers or supervisors can look forward to engaging their workers in relatively more frequent candid, participatory exchanges than what would be typical in formal top-down sessions.

Points to Ponder:

  • Among various "tips" given to evaluators and evaluated parties 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 applying 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 likely remain with the listener. Stacy Barr has applied metaphors and analogies to performance evaluations. 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.”[4]

  • 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 critical role in the organization's recent drive, or if you hear inaccurate assumptions or conclusions, you can gently 'update' them at the meeting or in a brief written note after 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 (both 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 provide you with documentation for performance evaluations as well as valuable achievements to highlight in your next job interview. Your work portfolio can also enhance your mood during suboptimal times at work.

[1] Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel (1437–1508), a Portuguese Jewish statesman, philosopher, Bible commentator, and financier. [2] Patriotta, G., & Brown, A. (2011). Sensemaking, metaphors and performance evaluation, Scandinavian Journal of Management, 27(1), 34-43. p. 35. [3] Millennials are considered those born roughly during the last two decades of the 20th century. [4] Barr, S. (2022). Performance measurement metaphors to get people engaged. Stacy Barr, the performance measure specialist.


bottom of page