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 levelsystems 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 Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
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