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Expecting More from Performance Appraisals October 29, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t trust a performance appraisal written by another manager. Appraisals are inherently objective and I have no idea how “well-calibrated” that manager is. In the world of metrology we would say that this process for measuring performance has serious issues with bias, stability, repeatability, and reproducibility. Yet the impact — positive or negative — on an employee’s salary, job security, and career growth within a company is huge. This is a lousy system that needs improvement. What can be done?

I think we have to start by asking: what are we trying to accomplish with a performance appraisal? On the surface this is a formal, written record of feedback given to the employee that ends up in their HR file. At minimum it includes the manager’s judgment about whether or not the employee achieved their assigned objectives, and usually some commentary about how those objectives were achieved. Note that despite encouragement to managers to provide informal performance feedback throughout the review period, the formal review may be the only time they’ve done so.

It’s not enough to report that the employee completed this task or failed to complete that one. Here are the questions I’d like to ask when I read about what an employee did during the review period:

  • How challenging were those assigned objectives?
  • Did the employee only meet expectations when they had an opportunity to exceed expectations?
  • Did the employee have enough authority and positional power to personally influence the outcome?
  • Were the performance measures granulated enough to enable the manager to judge individual accountability?
  • Were there mitigating factors beyond the employee’s control that prevented them from achieving the objectives?

However, I think we’re trying to do something more than just provide a summary of the employee’s accomplishments. Organizations value certain behaviors and want to encourage employees to exhibit those behaviors. Unfortunately these are often not stated explicitly, and it may be left to individual managers to apply their own values and preferences. In my teams I value creativity, teamwork, persistence, adaptability, proactive “fire prevention,” eagerness-to-learn, and independent judgment. When I write performance reviews I look for examples of these behaviors that I can cite. When that information is missing from a review someone else has written, it’s a huge gap in my understanding of that employee.

Writing annual performance reviews is one of the most dreaded responsibilities for any manager, and we owe it to the employee to provide an assessment based on consistent and job-appropriate expectations. The process may be subjective and imprecise, but the long-term implications are significant.



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