In the culinary world, getting a three-star Michelin rating is the equivalent of winning a gold medal in the Olympics (or getting all four chairs to turn around in The Voice I suppose). Chefs around the world kill to achieve what's widely viewed as the pinnacle feat in the food industry. 

Which is why it was so surprising when one of France's most celebrated chefs, Sebastien Bras, proprietor of the three-star restaurant Le Suquet in Southern France, took to Facebook Live to plea to Michelin to exclude him from their ratings guide in the future. 

He wanted out, away from the pressure of the Michelin guide hanging over his head. Here, take your stars and shove 'em.

He was tired of the pressure of having any one of his 500 meals a day subject to being judged during random yearly visits by fussy Michelin staff. It was sucking the joy out of his world. In Bras' words he "wanted to give a new meaning to my life". 

He wanted to enjoy the process of his creations once again, not just the dissected, sliced and diced end result.

Don't underestimate the intensity brought by the Michelin system. The New York Times reported on food superstar Benoit Violier, chef of three-star Restaurant de l'Hotel de Ville in Crissier, Switzerland, awarded best restaurant in the world. The 44 year-old chef took his own life, with fellow chefs speculating that he did so as a result of the pressure to maintain such other-worldly status for his work.

It wasn't a one-off tragedy. Bras cited another "pressure to perform" suicide, that of fellow chef Bernard Loiseau, as factoring into his decision to walk away from Michelin and all its trappings (good and bad).

So when Bras streamed his message of liberating surrender, I'm guessing employees and human resources professionals embedded in archaic performance ranking and rating systems around the world took notice. 

Oh to be free from such oppressive systems.

I worked for many years in a Fortune 500 company with such a system, and I can entirely empathize with Bras' plea. I'm not saying companies can't effectively employ a numerical rating system for performance evaluation--I'm sure some have figured it out. I'm just saying there are several pitfalls to be very wary of:

1. Neuroscience doesn't lie.

Neuroscience studies show ranking induces the "fight or flight" response, inducing extreme anxiety in the employee about how they are "stacking up" and impairing the ability to take well-intended feedback to heart. 

Neuroscience also shows rankings deter a desire to stretch and take risks as doing so invites potential failure, doomsday for the highest level ratings. Thus a companies innovation and market performance get weighed down by "artificially" conservative employees. 

2. It creates unwanted self-fulfilling prophecies. 

Not receiving the highest rating means you're reminded there are others better than you; you feel lesser than. And so you're more likely to perform that way, especially if you're paired with a boss who isn't skilled at making people feel appreciated. I saw this over and over again in my 25 years in corporate life.

3. No one ever really feels good about the outcome.

Top-rated employees fret if they will stay that way. Those not top-rated often feel underappreciated, like second-class citizens. And the managers administering the process get buried in a soul-sucking experience and overwhelmingly administrative amount of work. 

In my corporate life, I participated in "calibration days" where we would sit as leadership teams and rate and rank employees from top to bottom. It turned into a sickening, soul-crushing session of politicking and in-fighting. I had days where I had to fire employees--I preferred those days to calibration days.

4. The end result itself takes over the joy in the process.

As with Bras, I have seen many times that employees become obsessed with the numerical rating and lose the joy in creating, growing, learning, and discovering along the way. The number isn't a means to an end, it becomes the be all to end all.

So move forward carefully if you're considering a numerical performance evaluation system and at least explore alternatives.  

Experiments abound in many other companies to get away from this paint-by-numbers approach--alternative approaches that create better conversations, less fear, enthusiastic participation, a growth-orientation, and a trust enhancing outcome.  

In his announcement on Facebook Live, Sebastien Bras said: "Food should be about love--not competition." Likewise, shouldn't employee performance systems be about helping them to love themselves and want to grow, to help them leverage their strengths to excel and beat the competition, rather than competing with each other?

Food for thought. 

Published on: Dec 21, 2017
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