Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 3;   January 18, 2012: A Review of Performance Reviews: The Checkoff

A Review of Performance Reviews: The Checkoff

by

As practiced in most organizations, performance reviews, especially annual performance reviews, are toxic both to the organization and its people. A commonly used tool, the checkoff, is especially deceptive.
A mantis shrimp, recently discovered to have the ability to detect the circular polarization state of light

A mantis shrimp (Odontodactylus scyllarus), recently discovered to have the ability to detect the circular polarization state of light. It is not yet known what benefits this animal derives from this ability. There are two states of circularly polarized light: left circularly polarized and right circularly polarized. Light can be in any mixture of these two states, but these two states are all that are required to describe any polarization state of light. That is, the space of light polarization states is spanned by these two states.

The main shortcoming of checkoff systems for performance management applications is that the "states" in the checklist do not span the space of all possible performance histories. That is, the range of possible performance incidents for human performance is not capable of being represented by any combination of the elements of a finite set of checklist elements. It is this shortcoming that creates distortions in the documentation of performance by checkoff-based systems. Photo by Justin Marshall, University of Queensland. Courtesy U.S. National Science Foundation.

Performance review season in many organizations is now in full swing or just passed. As a tool of periodic reflection, performance reviews are a fine idea for accelerating employee development — in theory. But in practice, in most organizations that I've had contact with, performance reviews are downright toxic.

To understand why, let's consider the checkoff rating system often used for evaluating so-called soft skills. For instance, for evaluating listening skills, a performance review form might offer options such as these, usually ordered by desirability:

  • Has serious difficulty listening to others' opinions and maintaining open, two-way communications.
  • Has some difficulty listening to differing views and weighing them on their merits.
  • Listens to others with an open mind; receptive to differing views.
  • A very good listener, open to differing points of view; good two-way communications.
  • Excellent listening skills, very receptive to new ideas; excellent two-way communications.

Typically, reviewers are directed to select a single option, and then append comments in a space provided.

Such systems presuppose that performance is a constant, independent of context, unaffected by circumstances, and capable of being evaluated according to a limited number of levels. Moreover, they assume that the reviewer's perspective is valid, and that with respect to the performance being evaluated, the reviewer is omniscient. For instance, although in the reviewer's experience the performer might not have been receptive to differing points of view, it's possible that the performer is being subjected to harassment by peers, outside the awareness of the reviewer. But the reviewer's knowledge of such contextual factors is not usually measured.

Checkoff It's shockingly naïve to believe
that a rich, varied, complex,
multi-dimensional concept like
performance can be captured
with a single number or
ordered index level
systems like these serve two purposes. First, they standardize the reviewer's responses. In the event that the organization encounters a need to justify its human resource management decisions legally, as might occur, for instance, in a lawsuit, documentation containing well-crafted phrasing can provide helpful defense.

Second, checkoff systems dramatically reduce the reviewer's documentation burden, which has risen sharply as organizations have flattened. Checkoff systems provide a low-cost approach to documenting performance assessment.

It's shockingly naïve to believe that a rich, varied, complex, multi-dimensional concept like performance can be captured with a single number or ordered index level. Even when we decompose performance into supposedly orthogonal properties such as listening, communicating, job skills, total output, and so on, it is at best questionable to believe that we can attach a rating to each attribute and then use that data arithmetically to compose a meaningful overall rating result.

Still more shocking is the belief that we can compare the relative values to the organization of the performance of two individuals by comparing their ratings.

Those who create checkoff systems do indeed have something in mind, but it's more likely to be legal defense and performance review cost containment than it is employee development. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: A Review of Performance Reviews: Blindsiding  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenLBHRzlIhmvPbhbChner@ChacgMSseNnAnnCnAjBOoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Bottleneck road signWhen Your Boss Is a Micromanager
If your boss is a micromanager, your life can be a seemingly endless misery of humiliation and frustration. Changing your boss is one possible solution, but it's unlikely to succeed. What you can do is change the way you experience the micromanagement.
Submitting a status reportStatus-Report as a Second Language
Sometimes, the clichés the losing team's players feed to sports reporters can have hidden meaning. So it is with Project Status Reports, especially for projects in trouble.
Senator Mark Warner (Democrat of Virginia) meets with mayorsDiscussus Interruptus
You're chairing a meeting, and to your dismay, things get out of hand. People interrupt each other so often that nobody can complete a thought, and some people dominate the meeting. What can you do?
A portrait of Matthew Lyon, printer, farmer, soldier, politicianHow to Foresee the Foreseeable: Recognize Haste
When trouble arises after we commit to a course of action, we sometimes feel that the trouble was foreseeable. One technique for foreseeing the foreseeable depends on recognizing haste in the decision-making process.
A tire reef off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, FloridaManaging Hindsight Bias Risk
Performance appraisal practices and project retrospectives both rely on evaluating performance after outcomes are known. Unfortunately, a well-known bias — hindsight bias — can limit the effectiveness of many organizational processes, including both performance appraisal and project retrospectives.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Balancing talk time and the value of the contributionComing March 29: Virtual Blowhards
Controlling meeting blowhards is difficult enough in face-to-face meetings, but virtual meetings present next-level problems, because techniques that work face-to-face are unavailable. Here are eight tactics for controlling virtual blowhards. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
kudzu enveloping a Mississippi landscapeAnd on April 5: Listening to Ramblers
Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum? Available here and by RSS on April 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenvkhDvmFAkyfeSxVkner@ChacPLmMlvWnBbVqOIaUoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Conflict Resolution Skills for Leaders
ConflConflict Resolution Skills for Leadersict is inherent in collaborative work. When conflict is constructive, it produces better outcomes. When it's destructive, it can be an insurmountable obstacle to success. In this program, we explore the connections between the outcomes of collaboration and conflict in both of its forms. And we emphasize the skills needed most by leaders. The leader's task is to manage conflict so as to ensure that the group achieves its objective with its capacity to collaborate intact, or even enhanced. Rick Brenner shows team leaders and team sponsors the techniques they need to manage team conflict for relationship safety and better outcomes. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Influencing Outcomes Without Authority
Your Influencing Outcomes Without Authorityability to influence others — whether upward, downward, laterally, or within a team — always depends on both the quality of your relationships with the people you influence, and on your perception and their perception of your personal power. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you the techniques for making things happen not by using formal organizational power, but by using informal, personal power. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Times
When Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Timesa project team is on task, the contributions of leaders are important, and little noticed. Sometimes the team encounters unexpected difficulty, or requirements change, or budgets are reduced, or any of a number of other things might happen. In these cases, the leader must make or facilitate decisions about how to respond or how to revise the plan. We get through it somehow. Hard times are something else altogether. Despondency, disillusionment, resource shortages, unexpected and severe failure of the plan, and toxic conflict can erode morale. How can leaders deal with such situations? Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Technical Debt: A Workshop for Enterprise Leaders
TechnTechnical Debt Management for Enterprise Leadersical debt is more than mere IT jargon. It's a metaphor that refers to the accumulation of technical artifacts that really ought to be retired, replaced, rewritten, re-implemented, or, if absent, created. We can find technical debt in almost any system, including those that seem to be working well. So what's the problem? The problem is the "interest charges." Systems carrying technical debt are more difficult to maintain, more difficult to extend or enhance, and more difficult to use, than they would be if we "retired" the debt. This engaging and eye-opening program points the way to a path that leads your organization out of technical debt, to make it more adaptable, more transformable, and more agile. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.