360 Degrees of Power Plant Grief Counselling

The first time I sat through a Performance Review was with my mentor Larry Riley when I was on Labor Crew.  On a scale of 1000 I was somewhere around 850.  He said that this was the highest he had ever rated anyone so I should be proud, and I was.  As I walked out of the room and returned to work, I suddenly felt depressed.  I thought this was a strange response after just being told I was Larry’s “Star Pupil”.

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 16 years after my first performance review

Throughout the years, the Performance Review process changed a number of times.  The scale was changed to 1 to 10, then 1 to 5, then the numbers were taken away altogether and replaced with, Exceeds Expectations, Meets Expectations, and Fails to Meet Expectations.

The different scales all meant the same thing, and that was that if someone was applying for a job or up for a promotion, then this number became significant.  The number was used to rank employees.  Anyone who had a particularly low score was told they were on probation, and if they didn’t improve, then they would lose their job some time in the future.

The only person I can remember that was placed on probation was Curtis Love.  Later, Curtis was let go because he had dented the truck (while still on probation) when he backed it into a yellow post and didn’t tell his foreman Larry.  Curtis didn’t know that Larry saw it happen standing about 100 yards away in front of the Labor Crew Building.

An example of yellow poles protecting an area

An example of yellow poles protecting an area

For more about Curtis, read the post “Power Plant Safety As Interpreted by Curtis Love“.  Other than that, it was nearly impossible to lose your job… Unless, of course, you upset Jim Arnold.

After the reorganization in 1994, a woman from HR came to our Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma from Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  She chose some people randomly to interview about how to make the performance review process better.  I happened to be one of the people she randomly chose…  Go figure.  I had my own ideas about Performance Reviews.

I did what I usually did, and waited my turn to speak… Well… sometimes I do that anyway…. like, in this case.  Ok.  This was a rare case.  I wanted to wait until everyone else gave their two cents before I gave her my dollar fifty, so I waited until she asked me specifically what I thought.

I began with the sentence that went something like this:  “I don’t think the performance review should be tied to a person’s promotions, or job opportunities.  I think if the purpose for the performance review is to improve performance, then it has to be uncoupled from any kind of retribution or promotion.”

I continued…. “When the performance review is tied to your promotions, then a game is played with upper management where the scores are adjusted and comments are changed after the initial rating by the manager so that only one person can have the highest rating in a department or a team for example.  If we really want to improve our performance then the program should be changed so that it focuses on behavior and how it can be approved.”

After blurting out… I mean, carefully laying out my ideas…. I could see the HR lady’s wheels turning in her head.  That was what I thought anyway.  I could tell she could see what I was saying and she was ready to take that back to Oklahoma City.  I thought, “Poor young lady, she still has ideals from her youth that the system can be changed.  She is in for a rude awakening when she goes back to Corporate Headquarters and tries to pitch an idea like that.”  In a way I felt like I had set her up for failure.

I was surprised several months later when volunteers were elicited to become “Assessment Counselors”.  Of course, I signed up as soon as I heard about it.  After all, the reason I first decided to work toward a psychology degree was because I was thinking about becoming a High School Counselor.  I had seen the effects of both very bad counselors (I won’t mention all their names here) and a very good one (Mr. Klingensmith at Jefferson Junior High in Columbia, Missouri) and thought it was important to have good counselors in schools.

By the time I decided that my major would be psychology I had already worked at the Power Plant for one summer as a summer help, and didn’t realize that the allure of working with such a great group of men and women had already seeped into my blood, so I still thought there was some other job waiting for me out there besides “Power Plant Janitor”.  Silly me.  I mean, where else do you get to work where you can wear a yellow hard hat, safety glasses, mop floors and still get to look out over a beautiful lake with all the wildlife just a few yards away?

I went to “Assessment Counselor” training and learned that the new “Performance Review” was going to consist of performing a “360 degree Assessment” every two years on each employee.  What this means is that each person will rate their own performance. Then they will rate their coworkers.  Their manager will rate each of their direct reports.  Direct Reports will rate their managers.  Customers from other teams, preferably people that have observed your work throughout the year when you performed jobs for them will rate you.

A 360 degree assessment is when everyone around you rates you.  Sealed packets are mailed to each person that needs to rate each other.  So, each person at the plant would be rating a lot of people.  Then the packets are mailed back in, put in the computer and a final report is created.

The person that is going to be rated either enters who they want to be their assessment counselor, or if they don’t, then one is appointed to them.  That was where I came in.  I was a 360 degree Assessment Counselor for 4 years.   Right up until the day I left the plant in 2001.

The longest lasting benefit I received from being an assessment counselor was that at one point the assessment counselors were given a special High Quality OGIO Sports duffel bag:

My OGIO Sport Assessment Counselor Duffel Bag

My OGIO Sport Assessment Counselor Duffel Bag

This duffel bag has been around the world from Malaysia to Brazil, as I have traveled the world counselling people.  Well, giving them my two cents anyway.  It has finally worn out it’s usefulness and now sits prominently in the Power Plant Museum I maintain in my closet (or what my wife refers to as “pile of junk”).

The way the assessment worked was that I would receive a sealed envelope in the mail with all the material needed to perform the assessment on a person.  I would then schedule a meeting with them to go over their results.  Power Plant Men are very uncomfortable with this sort of thing.  I know I always disliked performance reviews ever since I received my first one from Larry, even though it was a glowing review.

The first thing I would explain to the Power Plant Men was that this review belongs to only them and no one else.  No one will see it except them, and well, myself.  It will not be used to decide your raise or promotions or anything else.  This is solely for their own benefit to see what other people think about how they work and to try to improve.

The real benefit was that you could see the comments left by other “anonymous” coworkers which gave you a pretty good picture how others viewed your work.  Sometimes that can be an eye opener.  Then it was my job to help the Power Plant Men develop a plan to improve their “Areas of Opportunities”.

For the typical Power Plant Man at our plant, it was a difficult job to even find one hidden “area of opportunity” because just about everyone at our plant had been hand picked from a much larger group of workers over the years to be where they were today.  Being the cream-of-the-crop meant that “Opportunities for Improvement” were far and few between.  Well, I say that, but there was always Gene Day….

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

I could sit all day with Gene and come up with 30 ways he could improve himself, but that was because I had been studying him for so many years… Actually, I don’t remember if I was ever Gene’s Assessment Counselor, I was just thinking of who could use the most improvement, and suddenly Gene came to mind.  See the post “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“.

For those unfortunate enough to have me as their assessment counselor, they found that what they thought was going to be the typical 10 minute review of their performance usually turned into a 3 hour session where I wouldn’t let them leave the room until we had three specific action items to work on for the next year.

Many times it came down to one comment from one person that alluded to some small behavior that could be improved.  Even though it might be vague, I would use it to start a discussion about how the person might be able to improve in that area.  Then we would come up with some measurable way the person could work to improve that particular attribute.  It could be “I will do such and such at least 2 times each month for the next 4 months”.

It took a couple of years before the Power Plant Men became comfortable enough to see any benefit at all from the 360 assessment, but one thing for sure…. It was better than going through a performance review that was written by your foreman and then edited three times by people higher up who didn’t know how your really worked before it was presented to you.

By the third year I had a growing reputation as someone that took the 360 degree assessment seriously and like a priest in a confessional, kept everything confidential. That is why even today, I can only tell you all about Gene Day’s performance review and how much he needed to improve because I don’t ever remember being his assessment counselor, although I wish I had, so that I could have helped straighten him out some… But then… you can’t teach an old Gene new tricks and Gene was the oldest of the old (I say that, because I know he occasionally reads these posts).

I mentioned in the post “Power Plant Lock Out – Tag Out or Just Tag Out” that my favorite “roomie” who was/is a foreman at the Power Plant in Harrah, Oklahoma on a lake called “Horseshoe Lake” asked me to be his assessment counselor in 2001.  We met at the Perkins Restaurant in Stillwater to go over it.

Steve Trammel had been my roommate when we were on a 10 week overhaul in Muskogee Oklahoma in 1984 just before Christmas (See the post “Something is in the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“).  We have always remained good friends, and I was honored that he had asked for me to be his assessment counselor 15 years later.

There were three situations where I felt like I was unable to help the people I was assigned to counsel.  The first situation was when the person reading the comments would focus on trying to figure out who said what.  As we would go over each of the comments, they would say something like, “Yeah.  I know who said that.  They just said that because of….”  Then we would read another comment and they would say something similar.

I could still work with people that initially took this approach because we could talk about why the person would say what they said and figure out how we could go about changing the other person’s attitude toward the person I was counselling.  Maybe by taking the tactics I had taken when Jim Padgett had become mad at me.  (See the post:  “Making Friends From Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes“).

The second situation that I found difficult was when the comments were broad attacks about the person.  In the sense that the person should look for another type of work, or something of that sort.  I had one female operator who was particularly upset about comments like that on her 360 assessment.  Even though we eventually came up with three ways she could improve, most of the time was spent helping her recover from the grief caused by the apparent insult in her assessment.

The third and most difficult situation I encountered while being a 360 degree assessment counselor was when I counseled someone from upper management that was planning to retire in a few years.  This person made it clear by saying right off the bat that it didn’t matter what their assessment said, he wasn’t going to change anything.  That didn’t stop me from going through all of the steps with him to create an action plan to improve his behavior.

All and all, I knew that most people didn’t take their action items and do anything about them.  That didn’t bother me.  I figured that during those three hours where we spent sitting their talking about their behavior was enough for most of them to put a thought in the back of their minds that would help them adjust their behavior at least a little when certain situations would arise.

As I mentioned before.  The people I was chosen to counsel were the best men and women in the Power Plant Industry.  The majority of the time as I watched each of them leave the room after sitting with them for three hours, I was proud to have been given the opportunity to sit with them and tell each of them that their coworkers and customers thought the world of them!

For a counselor who is looking to change the world, having to counsel this particular bunch of Power Plant People would have been very frustrating since there was barely any opportunity for improvement.  For me, this was the greatest job in the world.  “Here Fred (Generic Fred, not Fred Turner, well, it could have been Fred Turner), Look what your coworkers said about you!  Isn’t this great!?!”

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