One good thing about performance appraisals


The effect is exactly the opposite of what the words promise.
Everyone propels himself forward, or tries to, for his own good, on his own life preserver.

The organization is the loser.

Merit rating rewards people who do well within the system. It does not reward attempts to improve the system.

W. Edwards Deming in ‘Out of the Crisis’

So that’s some reasons why they’re a damaging waste of time, but here’s a list of what performance reviews are good for. A very short list.

  1. It’s one of the very best ways to find out how your manager thinks about work and people in work.

We all have an interior mental model about work, and like you, your manager may not be fully aware of theirs but it will display itself neatly during a performance appraisal/review/whatever you call it.

Thinking back to appraisals I have had, and reading the predictably ever-present documentation produced from them, I don’t recognise myself as being the starring main character. I am merely the walk-on spear holder, someone you see through the approach the actor-manager takes to the theatrical production. Here are some I have had the pleasure to appear with.

There was one who made sure that we made the best of it. That it may not be perfect, but here’s the opportunity to have a really good look at how things have went and use the tools they have given us to see what we could get from them.
As part of the process we went over the organisational values and picked them up gingerly, as if a live insect in a pair of tweezers being held up to the light, to see what if anything I had contributed towards them. (“learning and moving on“, that was one of the values, would you believe. Moving on. That tell you a lot after “learning”. Move along now, there’s nothing here to look at. Just keep walking.)

So we went through them, me coming up with examples, duely written down. Then some learning objectives. For training, I am guessing. That never happened. (I can’t remember the last time I have been “trained” in anything, other than first aid. Thank God for learning instead eh? Books and that.)
From this I could see she had a thorough approach to work. That by making the best of things, the best of things would inevitably be made. In contrast, my bleating about Deming and 95% of performance being the system, which never got a performance review or learning objectives, well that just faded into cynical moaning in comparison with the jollying along and best-making.

There was a manager who saw work as being about characters battling over turf, and games being played to win, so how is paper work a part of this? It isn’t. Thankfully very short, these appraisals focussed on what other people thought of me. As appearances are part of the game. Not entirely inaccurate as a description of the work that this manager took part in, but it had zero relevance to the factory floor where I as a minion toiled.

There was one manager who with deft of hand, a real conjuror’s touch, made the focus of the meeting what “value” I personally had added over the previous year. The system me and my team worked in was designed by this manager, and was widely seen to be utterly broken, so it is not unsurprising that when I said I had added zero value, the manager replied “so you want me to write down you have added zero value over the course if this year? With the next restructure coming up, this is how you want to be seen?”
So I made up a bunch of lies and that was written down as my performance instead.

There was one lady I respected, who literally shoved the papers and forms to one side and said in a broad Geordie accent, “we’ll not be bothering with this shite, tell us what you like about warking here, and what ye divvent, and we’ll see what we can de noo”

Each meeting different to the degree each manager was. Them creating the whole production in their own style, me carrying a spear as a walk-on extra, never the actual star of the show.

My current level of performance, as judged by my last performance review? Satisfactory.

Hurray! Barely adequate! Just-about-acceptable! A tadge above being unsatisfactory!

Thanks performance review! You’ve done me proud!

Issues of subjectivity tend to be met in command and control organisations with more detailed forms in a futile attempt to make them more “scientific”. Human resources department have never impressed me with their grasp of psychology and learning, and how organisations “work”, but they are as much as I am, hand-maidens to the dominant mode of thinking. I work in performance management so I can’t come the Mother Superior.

Just as well this stuff isn’t enforced by law. Oh, hang on. In some areas it is. There is a requirement based in statutory law, that child care providers for under 5’s carry out staff appraisals.

The safeguarding and
welfare requirements are given legal force by Regulations made under Section 39(1)(b) of the
Childcare Act 2006.

Providers should ensure that regular staff appraisals are carried out to
identify any training needs, and secure opportunities for continued
professional development for staff.

When I read stuff like that it reminds me of Indiana State Legislature trying to pass a law stating that Pi was to equal 3.2, 3.23 or 4, depending on which one you felt like using. But not the actual value of Pi. That was felt to be too irrational a number.

A bit like how the annual performance review still lives because it is easier to rate and pass judgement on staff, attributing responsibility for performance to the flesh and blood individual sitting in front of you, rather than some invisible system.

This is a beautifully closed learning loop. Managers will remain ignorant of the real causes of performance and stop them learning how to manage properly.

A manager I know who learnt about systems thinking, and what was causing the poor performance in her service, said she felt embarrassed as

“For 25 years I’ve been focussing on the wrong thing”

I.e staff in meeting rooms being given scores and ratings, training objectives being set and forms filled in.

I started with Deming, so will end with him. Dead short, dead simple.

Stop doing them and things will get better

This entry was posted in all wrong, command and control, leadership, public sector, systems thinking and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to One good thing about performance appraisals

  1. Paul Holland says:

    Nice post. I was a manager for 12 years and I saw the demoralizing effect of performance reviews right from the start. For the last 8 years that I “wrote” reviews – I didn’t. In other words, I had my staff write their own reviews.

    I had frequent meetings with my staff throughout the year and they were aware of the impact they were having and what needed improvement. I always felt that if someone was surprised by the content then their manager was not doing their job. That then progressed (once my team wrote their own reviews) to: if I was surprised then I wasn’t doing a good job. I felt it helped make the best of a bad situation.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      someone i knew gave the same performance review form and score for all his staff, then concentrated on improving things properly once that was out the way, by working on the system with the staff.
      nobody noticed or cared, as nobody missed them.


  2. Robert Bacal says:

    Deming was writing about the performance review system, AS IT EXISTED, and often does exist now, but the problem with Deming’s conclusion is that it’s perfectly possible to use a performance MANAGEMENT approach that DOES optimize the system. It’s just that nobody does it for that purpose, but it’s certainly possible, with a shift in mindset. See for a case study example


  3. ThinkPurpose says:

    hmm. thanks for the comment, always appreciate someone else spending time reading my stuff.
    but the link you provide, it’s bollocks.
    cheers anyway


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