Leadership lessons from Confucius: the dreaded annual review process

annual review process

Zigao is dumb; Zengzi is dull; Zizhang is frivolous; Zilu is reckless. (1)

How seriously do you take the annual review process for your staff? Do you approach it as a box-ticking exercise to keep HR and senior management off your back? Or do you use it as an opportunity to have a frank and serious conversation with each member of your team in order to let them know what you think about their performance and come up with ways of addressing any shortcomings in them that you’ve identified?

Much more importantly, what steps have you taken during the year to communicate your thoughts with each individual so that what you have to say in the annual review doesn’t come as a total surprise to them?

Even though it can be a time-consuming process, providing consistent feedback throughout the year is a core responsibility of any leader. How will your staff know why and where they need to improve if you don’t carve some space out of your schedule to tell them?


This article features a translation of Chapter 18 of Book 11 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 11 here.

(1) Presumably, it’s Confucius who’s making these assessment of four of his followers – though the text doesn’t indicate this. Presumably, too, he is simply highlighting the major weakness of each of them in order to persuade them to address it rather than issuing a blanket condemnation of their character. Some commentators argue that Confucius is implying that their greatest strength turns into their greatest weakness when taken to extremes:

Zigao was known for being so frank and honest that he sometimes appeared stupid and clumsy.

Zengzi was known for being so diligent and upright that he lacked imagination and flexibility.

Zizhang was known for being so bright that he ended up appearing frivolous.

Zilu was known for being so bold that he was unable to guard against descending into rashness.

I took this image of these two ancient Zhou dynasty ritual vessels at the new Confucius Museum in the sage’s home town of Qufu. You can read more about the museum here.

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