It's time to get rid of appraisals

Forced rankings and other merit ratings that breed internal competition are bad management because they undermine motivation and breed contempt for management among people who, at least at first, were doing good work. These systems require leaders to label many people as poor performers even though their work is well within the range of high quality. When people get unfair negative evaluations, it can leave them “bitter, crushed, bruised, battered, desolate, despondent, dejected, feeling inferior, some even depressed, unfit for work for weeks after receipt of the rating, unable to comprehend why they are inferior.” – paraphrase of famous quality guru W. Edwards Deming from the blog ‘Work Matters’ by Bob Sutton

I imagine that everyone who just read that, whether you’re the recipient or the executor of appraisals, just gave a mighty ‘Hi Ho’ to the quote above. Why is this? In my experience most people hate the appraisal, in whatever form it comes. And if so many of us think they’re a bunch of baloney, how is it that they persistently survive? Have we become so voiceless in our own organisations that we’re powerless to change the status quo?

Instead, the powers that be, continue to keep the appraisal alive. Perhaps it’s the clever strategy of changing their shape and form every now and then that holds us in a state of confusion, or perhaps hope that the next iteration will be THE ONE that get’s it right? We’ve had 180 degree reviews; the 360 degree review; forced ranking (also known as peer ranking in some places), the Multi-Rater and now the latest ‘craze’, The Talent Matrix. Each one however, is the exactly the same as the one before, except for a change in the image we use to depict it. From circles, to bell curves, to spider diagrams, and currently a square with 9 blocks.

This idea is gaining momentum. Today I listened to a July PodCast (It’s time to sack job appraisals) of the FT’s Lucy Kellaway saying in 5 minutes what I often need 30 minutes (at least) to say. And Samuel Culbert has a new book out called, ‘Get Rid of the Performance Review!: How Companies Can Stop Intimidating, Start Managing–and Focus on What Really Matters‘ (it’s not available on the Kindle in South Africa).

Samuel Culbert wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal in Oct 2008, where he offered up 7 reasons why the Performance Appraisal doesn’t work. I’ll list the points. You’ll have to go to the article to read the meat of each point.

  1. Two People, Two Mind-Sets
  2. Performance doesn’t determine pay
  3. Objectivity is subjective
  4. One size does not fit all
  5. Personal development is impeded
  6. Disruption to teamwork
  7. Immorality of justifying corporate improvement

The boss’s assignment is to guide, coach, tutor, provide oversight and generally do whatever is required to assist a subordinate to perform successfully. That’s why I claim that the boss-direct report team should be held jointly accountable for the quality of work the subordinate performs. I’m sick and tired of hearing about subordinates who fail and get fired, while bosses, whose job it was to ensure subordinate effectiveness, get promoted and receive raises in pay.

He then goes on to talk about an alternative that he calls ‘The Performance Preview’. In his words:

The alternative to one-side-accountable, boss-administered/subordinate-received performancereviews is two-side, reciprocally accountable, performance previews.

One of the things we’re really terrible at as people and it carries through into our businesses, is to get rid of things we do without replacing them with something else (even if they don’t work). Perhaps in this case we need to have the courage to abandon them all together and start with a fresh slate?

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