Performance Evaluations: “The GREAT EVIL”?

by Michael Haberman on April 22, 2010 · 0 comments


Periodically performance evaluations/appraisals/reviews get demonized. We have another round of that demonization going on currently. A new book “Get Rid of the Performance Review! How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing — and Focus on What Really Matters.” by Samual A. Culbert and Lawerence Rout is receiving media attention. Culbert wrote an article, Yes, Everyone Really Does Hate Performance Reviews, that appeared in the Wall Street Journal and has been talked about in MSNBC.com’s article Want to improve performance? Cancel reviews. Culbert’s premise is “This corporate sham is one of the most insidious, most damaging, and yet most ubiquitous of corporate activities. Everybody does it, and almost everyone who’s evaluated hates it. It’s a pretentious, bogus practice that produces absolutely nothing that any thinking executive should call a corporate plus.” He goes on further to state that it is all about whether the boss likes you or not and that performance reviews damage people psychologically and ruin productivity for the organization.

He also states that “Proponents of performance reviews say that the problem isn’t the review itself, but poorly trained reviewers. Sorry, but that doesn’t fly: The performance review done exactly as intentioned is just as horribly flawed as the review done “poorly.” You can’t bake a great cake with rotten milk, no matter how skilled the chef. They also say you need performance reviews to protect against lawsuits by laid-off workers. Nonsense: Most performance reviews hurt a company’s case because they aren’t honest assessments of a worker’s performance.”

His solution? Review performance everyday by having conversations.

That is all well and good. I agree with Culbert on a couple of areas. “Reviews” should be done all the time. The world changes too fast not to be doing “course corrections” to avoid surprises. And I think “conversations” are important. And the tools could be improved substantially in many cases.

But I disagree with Culbert on several areas as well. I disagree that the problem is just the tool. You will indeed have problems if you use some crappy check box format that is bought “off the shelf.” But you can, through interaction with your employees, design a meaningful review tool that measures performance, updates the job description and provides improvement plans as needed. The problem is that most companies are too lazy to spend the time to do so.

Secondly, I disagree that training is not an issue. It is a major issue. American companies do a notoriously bad job of training supervisors and managers in ANYTHING. Culbert calls for “conversations” around work performance. Asking questions and listening to answers. Well hate to wake you up Mr. Culbert that requires training too. In case you haven’t notice most people are not good listeners and don’t know how to ask the proper questions. So “conversation” is not the simple solution.

Thirdly, paperwork is necessary in this world. The governments require that you document your decisions. If you do not YOU LOSE! Poor documents can get you in trouble too, no doubt. But NO DOCUMENTS are even worse.

Culbert’s arguments almost sound like “sour grapes” from someone who has never gotten a good review. But I think there is a dash of senationalism tossed in there in order to sell a book. Hmmm.. I wonder, will Culbert be paying attention to the book reviews? Or will he ignore them as poor mechanisms produced by untrained reviewers who are only judging his personality?

Now I could be all wet on this, so I have posted a poll in the left column. Vote on your view of performance reviews/appraisals/evaluations and I will publish the results in a week.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Cathy Missildine-Martin, SPHR April 22, 2010 at 9:57 am

Hi Mike:

I have read Colbert's articles as well, and you have hit on my sentiments exactly. IF the entire performance management system is done right, first step making sue all competencies are linked to the organizational strategy, then making sure the instrument is valid for each major job group, and managers are well trained on ratings/feedback, why wouldn't it work?

By human nature, employees need to know how they are performing against goals, we need a history of that feedback so we can design training, design career development opportunities and so on.

Unfortunately in our litigious world we have to have the proper documentation to PROTECT our companies, but that should not be the MAIN reason to make sure our performance management system is right….the main reason is to continue to motivate good performance and help improve poor performance!! If yo have 45 direct reports, how do you keep up with all those conversations Mr. Colbert?

Reply

Michael D. Haberman, SPHR April 22, 2010 at 10:43 am

Cathy:
You are correct. Protection of the company is just a by-product of the performance appraisal process. Insuring productivity, correcting behavior, developing employees is what it is about. Not feelings.

But until companies are willing to invest the time and effort in developing and training the process will remain flawed and will continue to be demonized.

Reply

Eric B. Meyer April 22, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Mike –

Your third point about documentation is crucial. [Said with my lawyer hat affixed firmly to my head]. If problems arise with a current or former employee, that documentation will speak for itself. Conversely, the absence of documentation is not good. In my experience, rarely, if ever, does the lack of documented performance review help an employer when cases get litigated.

[Taking lawyer hat off now]

IMHO, written feedback, coupled with frequent conversation and training, form a three-legged stool. The written performance review lets an employee know where he/she stands. The conversation affords both sides the opportunity to explain themselves. And training helps that employee get where he/she needs to go.

Reply

Wally Bpck April 22, 2010 at 5:26 pm

You seem to have hit all the important points, Mike. Bravo!

The whole idea of performance evaluation/appraisal as a function (as opposed to a business process) starts with selecting individuals for supervisory positions who have a reasonable chance of succeeding in the role. Then you give them training and support in the role.

All the top performing supervisors I studied operated in organizations with formal, written appraisal systems of the kind that Dr. Culbert wants to dismantle.

They had multiple supervisory conversations every day with the people on their team. They used every encounter as an opportunity to coach, counsel, encourage, and correct. Almost all of that work was informal, ie not documented.

That's what you describe Dr. Culbert as recommending. It is somewhat different from what he promoted in some of his earlier articles.

Obviously, there are situations where documentation was appropriate to protect the team member, the supervisor, and the organization. Then it needs to be accurate, dispassionate, and timely.

As I tell people in class and in my Working Supervisor's Support Kit, the reason you document is so that you will be able to present the reason you acted as you did in an environment which is likely to be adversarial. The great supervisors I studied produced excellent documentation.

Here's my first takeaway from that research. If you have good supervision, it can work with almost any administrative system you put atop it. Ultimately, it's the supervisor that makes the difference.

Among the most fascinating findings of my research were what happened in the annual (or semi-annual in some cases) formal appraisal session. The sessions they held with their team members were longer (by a factor of at least three) and far less likely to be interrupted.

The focus was different as well. Most supervisors use the formal appraisal session to justify why the evaluated a team member in a particular way. Great supervisors had no need for that. I suggest in the Support Kit and elsewhere, that if there are any surprises at formal appraisal time, the supervisor has not done his or her job.

Because they had already done performance appraisal every day and because there were frequent communications about expectations and performance, great supervisors could spend the formal session talking about the future. And that's what they did.

One more thing. We talk about "performance appraisal," but often we're not talking about performance at all. We're talking about behavior. Coming late, disrupting meetings, violating safety regs, etc have nothing to do with performance. Yet we don't distinguish the two in most appraisals.

Reply

Wally Bpck April 22, 2010 at 5:26 pm

You seem to have hit all the important points, Mike. Bravo!

The whole idea of performance evaluation/appraisal as a function (as opposed to a business process) starts with selecting individuals for supervisory positions who have a reasonable chance of succeeding in the role. Then you give them training and support in the role.

All the top performing supervisors I studied operated in organizations with formal, written appraisal systems of the kind that Dr. Culbert wants to dismantle.

They had multiple supervisory conversations every day with the people on their team. They used every encounter as an opportunity to coach, counsel, encourage, and correct. Almost all of that work was informal, ie not documented.

That's what you describe Dr. Culbert as recommending. It is somewhat different from what he promoted in some of his earlier articles.

Obviously, there are situations where documentation was appropriate to protect the team member, the supervisor, and the organization. Then it needs to be accurate, dispassionate, and timely.

As I tell people in class and in my Working Supervisor's Support Kit, the reason you document is so that you will be able to present the reason you acted as you did in an environment which is likely to be adversarial. The great supervisors I studied produced excellent documentation.

Here's my first takeaway from that research. If you have good supervision, it can work with almost any administrative system you put atop it. Ultimately, it's the supervisor that makes the difference.

Among the most fascinating findings of my research were what happened in the annual (or semi-annual in some cases) formal appraisal session. The sessions they held with their team members were longer (by a factor of at least three) and far less likely to be interrupted.

The focus was different as well. Most supervisors use the formal appraisal session to justify why the evaluated a team member in a particular way. Great supervisors had no need for that. I suggest in the Support Kit and elsewhere, that if there are any surprises at formal appraisal time, the supervisor has not done his or her job.

Because they had already done performance appraisal every day and because there were frequent communications about expectations and performance, great supervisors could spend the formal session talking about the future. And that's what they did.

One more thing. We talk about "performance appraisal," but often we're not talking about performance at all. We're talking about behavior. Coming late, disrupting meetings, violating safety regs, etc have nothing to do with performance. Yet we don't distinguish the two in most appraisals.

Reply

Andy Spence May 2, 2010 at 11:15 am

Good post and debate which raises some questions for me. Isn't the goal here to improve individual and team performance in line with organisation goals? Shouldn't line managers be monitoring and managing performance on a frequent basis anyway? Does the performance management process actually help organisations achieve this? Would the time, effort and cost better be spent on other 'performance improvement' activities such as manager training or online feedback tools like Rypple? I think we should assess each type of performance improvement activity on its own merits given the business context, capabilities (which are mentioned as a barrier) and goals etc.

For info, this post made our Top 10 HR Transformation Articles in April.

http://www.glassbeadconsulting.com/top-10-hr-transformation-articles-in-april/

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