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Atlassian revises performance reviews to mark down 'brilliant jerks'

Atlassian revises performance reviews to mark down 'brilliant jerks'

Considering teamwork, values as attitudes turn on toxic 10x engineers

Earlier this month, Bangalore-based venture capitalist Shekhar Kirani posted a thread on Twitter about the value of ‘10x engineers’. Such engineers, he wrote, can be identified by their hatred of meetings, refusal to look at documentation and the fact they are “poor mentors” and “can't teach others on what to do”.

“If you come across them, hold on to them. Celebrate them,” Kirani tweeted.

The thread was met with dismay, and the responses went viral. Such attitudes were toxic, many replied, but all too frequent. The ‘10x engineer’ is a “poisonous stereotype that is running our industry” others responded.

The view of the 10x engineer “promotes elitism, is fundamentally identifying teamwork skills as weak/flaws and promotes unhealthy work-life balance as an identifier of success” said ArenaNet lead game designer Jennifer Scheurle.

So what’s the alternative? In a recent blogpost, Atlassian’s head of talent Bek Chee laid out the company’s new approach to measuring the performance of its employees, which she says will avoid it “over-emphasise delivery of results and ignore behaviours that can take a toll on team health and company culture”.

Following a 12 month trial, Atlassian is now looking to roll out a new performance review framework, “focused on continuous improvement and a fair and bias-resistant process”.

Rather than purely focus on “expectations of their role” metrics – the sorts of KPIs that lead to a floor full of ‘10x engineers’ – Atlassian has introduced two other assessment pillars: the contribution an individual makes to their team, and their demonstration of company values. Each of the assessment areas is weighted equally to determine a performance rating.

“To build effective teams, you have to prioritise much more than just individual performance,” Chee wrote in the post.

“We were especially conscious to ensure no ‘brilliant jerks’ were given a high rating,” she added.

The phrase ‘brilliant jerks’ was coined a decade ago by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings in a presentation on the company’s culture.

"Brilliant jerks. Some companies tolerate them. For us, cost to effective team work is too high," he states in it.

Atlassian’s revised performance system is also designed to mitigate the cognitive bias that affect managers’ ability to fairly rate each person’s performance. These biases could include women exhibiting leadership qualities being characterised as “bossy” while their male colleagues with similar traits get promoted.

The ‘contribution to the team’ assessment measures how far employees go to elevate their teammates’ impact and overall team performance, and their efforts to foster an environment of trust and belonging among other things.

For ‘demonstration of values’ employees are marked against the company’s five company values. The ‘expectation of role’ metrics have also been expanded to encompass how far someone has gone to identify gaps in plans, course-correct projects and inspire others to greater levels of performance.

Initial feedback has found the new approach is considered “a fair and actionable assessment for all involved”.

“We’re happy to share that our testing showed no measurable bias built into the structure of the performance review. And our employees are already benefiting, with early feedback results showing a 10 per cent increase in understanding of how individual performance is being assessed and a nine per cent increase in feeling that the feedback from the performance review will help employees improve their performance,” Chee said.

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