Abolishing Performance Appraisals: Why They Backfire and What To Do Instead

This is the title of one of my favorite books on this topic, authored by Mary Jenkins and Tom Coens. Many people have strong opinions about how to do performance appraisals, what improvements we can make and whether they even work at all. One of the best management thinkers of our time said:

“(The annual review) nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, nourishes rivalry and politics…It leaves people bitter, crushed, bruised, battered, desolate, despondent dejected, feeling inferior, some even depressed, unfit for work for weeks after receipt of rating; unable to comprehend why they are inferior. It is unfair, as it ascribes to the people in a group differences that may be caused totally by the system that they work in.”
– Dr. W. Edwards Deming
I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Deming. Another great management thinker of our time, Peter Scholtes, said all of the incentivized, reengineered, motivated, teamed-up and self-directed people you can muster cannot compensate for a dysfunctional system.
We typically have good intentions with our performance appraisal systems, but they rarely deliver what we want no matter what side of the table you are sitting on. In the end, improved individual performance does not lead to long-term improved organizational performance if the system is broken (that is, the process that people are in to get their work and objectives accomplished). But why do we turn to improve the people, rate them, inspire them, motivate them? Because we can only improve what we can see and people are tangible. If we can’t see our systems/processes, we can’t improve them. And if we can’t improve them, we have some amazing people trying to do the best they can with what we have given them.
If you are interested in learning more about this topic and want to hear Mary Jenkins lead a workshop about this book, there is a program being held at the end of April that will dive right into it: http://bit.ly/99WdLj

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Daniel Pink’s new book Drive gets into some of this as well. That the key to driving good performance is not strict appraisals and dangling carrots but instead creating autonomy and impact on an important mission.

Jeffrey Press

Couldn’t agree more Steve. Drive is a great book. People want to make a difference and feel like they are part of something greater. However, in order for people to feel that, we need to fix the systems of government (a system being a process that produces something for a customer to achieve a desired result). A new appraisal system does not fix the systems. If you want to motivate your people, autonomy and impact go a long way.

Henry Brown

Suspect at some level the US federal government is beginning to do something about the long standing issue of Evaluation of Work. There is a new “group”, ROWE and Federal Government on GovLoop.com which is going to attempt to keep the govloop community aware of the progress of OPM’s pilot project for workplace flexibility. IMO probably the biggest obstacle that is going to have to be dealt with is HOW can “management” evaluate the performance when the employee is NOT right down in the next cubicle.

Jeffrey Press

Savi – Great response! Thanks for taking the time. And there is no question that we have to evaluate performance in some way. My big thing is that we always start there. It’s the “we’re ok you’re not approach” to improving government. That is, if we could just get you to work X% harder, we would all be better off. I rarely meet government workers who aren’t already giving it their all, but are extremely demotivated because they are only as good as the system they are in. Instead of evaluating employee performance by 360 degree feedback, competency modeling, performance scorecards and knowledge-based assessments, let’s sit down and try to find the root cause of why it’s happening. Often times, if you ask, they will tell you a number of reasons why things are the way they are. And often times they are valid process/systematic reasons.