It happens to all of us at least once a year: the evaluation dance. You compile a list of accomplishments, you make your best case for a top rating, and you wait it out. Days go by, sometimes weeks; I once waited over a year for an evaluation from a senior rater who was angry that I’d been reassigned (it was late, if you’re wondering). Sometimes you get a little “face time” with the boss to review your rating, other times you get no more than a piece of paper in an envelope.

The language of evaluations is, well, a language unto itself. Interpreting that language can take years of experience, and some people never really get to a point where they can make sense of evaluation comments. Some of us are fortunate enough to have mentors translate that language while others go years without really knowing with any degree of certainty whether their performance is good or not.

As a senior leader, nothing struck me harder than the experience of counseling a subordinate who had not yet come to grips with a mediocre file and was blissfully unaware of the career risk those evaluations posed. On numerous occasions, I was the first person to help them read between the lines, to provide them a blunt interpretation of their evaluation comments. During one counseling session, an astonished lieutenant colonel told me, “I’m a top ten percent officer. My last three evaluations say so.” I explained that none of the evaluations were “enumerated” (for example, “Captain Yossarian is number 1 of 15”) and all of them were “highly qualified” ratings. To a promotion board, they’re generally forgettable.

For others, our sessions were no less painful. Someone would share a concern about their competitiveness for promotion or a school and ask me to review their file. In other cases, they’d already missed out on that promotion or school, or been identified for separation, all the time not really understanding where they went wrong. (Note: to be fair, some were relatively easy to explain because of derogatory information in their permanent file, but those were generally the exception.)

when nice words mean nothing

Even as I interpreted the language for them, I compiled a short list of the most common – and meaningless – laudatory phrases I saw. Yes, the words are nice. They might even be sincere. But if you don’t see a “most qualified” rating with enumeration behind it, they’re just nice words. Nice words won’t get you promoted. Nice words won’t get you into a funded graduate school program. Nice words won’t get you into the National War College. Nice words make you feel good – at least until you realize that they don’t do much for you.

  1. “One of the best…” This was, without a doubt, the most common of the go-to laudatory comments. When partnered with an average rating, it’s a clear signal that you’re not one of the best.
  2. “Absolutely outstanding performance.” The second-most common comment and the standard opening line to more evaluations than I can remember. My response? “Absolutely no meaning whatsoever.”
  3. “… contributed immeasurably.” If someone can’t measure your contribution through enumeration, it is probably a good bet that they don’t really know what you did, or just saw you in a lot of meetings. Concrete facts are always better.
  4. “Can be counted on…” A phrase I typically encountered with people who showed little personal initiative but could be trusted to follow simple orders. Those words just seem to flow freely with people who are reliable but not exceptional.
  5. “A real winner!” No other phrase is more cringe-worthy. No other phrase says “I’m not a winner” more. And, yes, trite phrases like this are sadly common.
  6. “… at the forefront.” Again, anyone who is really at the forefront of anything will see strong enumeration in an evaluation. In most cases, a phrase like this tends to mean that you were typically in the room when something important happened, not that you had anything to do with it.
  7. “… requires minimal guidance.” I’m always suspicious of someone who comments on an individual’s need for guidance. It’s generally an indication that the person on the receiving end of the evaluation needs to have detailed guidance for the simplest tasks.
  8. “… accomplish a myriad of tasks simultaneously.” Inevitably, this comment was ascribed to those who could juggle a lot of relatively simple tasks, but otherwise didn’t stand out in the pack. Being the battalion juggler means little if the overall rating doesn’t do much for you.
  9. “… a true workhorse.” The first time I heard this comment was during a discussion of a cadet who was found unfit to serve as an officer. His ROTC Professor of Military Science used him exclusively as a human packhorse; that’s about as far as his skills took him. Again, without enumeration, being a workhorse just means you’re most useful when heavy furniture needs to be moved or someone has to carry the mortar baseplate.
  10. “… a consummate team player.” Batting cleanup isn’t always a good thing. This was a comment I even found a time or two in my own file, always in situations where an average evaluation was inevitable, and someone felt obligated to mention the fact that I played well with others. As always, be wary of a comment like this without the rating to match.

I was fortunate enough to have a brigade commander early in my career who shared much of his experience reading, evaluating, and interpreting evaluations, skills honed through years of serving on various boards and an assignment as the chief of the sustainment branch (in the days when it was still just called “logistics branch”). That wisdom served me well – or at least gave me a cynic’s eye – a few years later when a senior rater tried to pass off as something special an average evaluation that was weaved together with empty laudatory comments.

“Branch will think I’m crazy for giving you an evaluation this good,” he said to me.

“I don’t think they’re that stupid, sir,” I replied. A reply, I might add, that went right over his head.

“Probably not. But this is really good.”

It wasn’t. It actually combined bits and pieces of many of the comments listed here, along with a few others. I wasn’t his favorite and I knew it. He was a garrison leader to the core and I wasn’t; he liked flashy PowerPoint slides and I was a 3×5 card kind of guy; he couldn’t speak warfighter and that’s all I understood. We rarely saw eye-to-eye and I think just seeing me was a constant reminder of that. We both went our separate ways and our careers continued on different paths. No harm, no foul.

He also lacked the moral courage to tell me the truth, a sin that permeates the ranks. Leaders like him inevitably puts other leaders in the unenviable position of explaining to someone that they’ve been misled (at best) or outright lied to (at worst). No one takes pleasure in the uncomfortable conversations necessary when telling someone that their performance isn’t that remarkable, but if you’ve taken the time to counsel and at least issue some “steering guidance” along the way it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

But, judging from the number of people who have walked through my door looking for answers, that’s a pretty big “if.”

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.