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The Underbelly of Performance Reviews

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas Miller
March 28, 2017 

Plenty has been written about measuring employee performance but more has been whispered. Managers say it must be done, but what employee likes the process or the outcome? Easy arguments and compelling research have shown even the best employees are not eager for their annual evaluation and regularly admit it around the water cooler. The hard facts from employee surveys themselves support the point. National Research Center, Inc. has asked thousands of government employees to rate aspects of performance evaluations (its “accuracy,” “connection between compensation and performance,” “dealing with low-performing employees”) and those characteristics of the job receive about the worst ratings among scores of other weak job factors such as effectiveness of meetings and timely communication of information. We find employees rate aspects of performance evaluations at the bottom of job conditions as regularly as residents rate animal control at the bottom of local government services.

It is fine to consider the myriad ways (e.g. here, here or here) authors recommend improving employee assessment systems. However, after decades of assessment and ideas to improve it, let’s honestly consider why personnel evaluation may be doomed to dog catcher status among the very people for whom assessment is intended to create better work environments.

Evaluation is a risky business

Everyone wants to please others, be admired or at least well thought of and, throughout life everyone is evaluated by others who make that determination. The need to be appreciated is both self-serving and a selection advantage for the species that thrives when individuals contribute to group success. From an evolutionary perspective, evaluation is the human way of assuring the group maximizes its effectiveness.

While constructive evaluation is good for improving the species, the individual whose actions may be judged as flawed is likely to disparage the process. People generally do not like risk and honest evaluation. Whether a public or private proposition, it always includes the risk of revealing our imperfections, however subtle, leaving us embarrassed or disappointed.

The perceived value of evaluation evolves

Let’s consider three circumstances that vary the motivation to evaluate and the request to be evaluated by those assessed.

Earliest evaluations protect those evaluated

deskDuring our lives we are evaluated by different stakeholders who have distinct reasons to judge us. As children, before we can opt in or out, elevators who wish to protect us, assess us out of love. Parents and relatives carefully measure us from the start – are we speaking according to schedule, have we eaten the foods that should help us grow strong, do we show aptitude for music or academics?

Requested evaluations from trusted members of our inner circle are desired.

As we reach the age of volition, we sometimes invite our partners, children, close friends and even paid help—like teachers or coaches—to join the assessment team to make sure the spinach is out of our teeth, the jobs and salaries we get are appropriate, that our fingers hit the right frets. Even these evaluations may be unwanted if not requested. But when evaluations are sought and motivated primarily by the intent to help the one evaluated, these assessments are welcome.

Evaluations driven by duty and entitlement create the most resentment

But selfless judgments are rare since those hired to improve us, and even loved ones, often harbor their own needs for us to succeed. When caring alone is not the motivation for evaluation, duty steps in. Teachers, coaches, supervisors, doctors, the police evaluate us to assure that we learn, train, work, heal or conform as prescribed. These professionals have paid roles to press us to achieve what family or society expects. Their performance evaluations often are based on our performance evaluations and the success or failure of those evaluated bears consequences for the assessor and the assessed. These assessments are dreaded.

Evaluations come not only from those we trust or hire but from those who hire us. If you are a producer of services (or products), as all workers in and out of government are, your customers/taxpayers evaluate you. The recipients of your work regularly determine if you built the car, taught the course or repaired the road with the quality expected for the dollar spent. This kind of evaluation comes not from caring or duty but from entitlement. Once I’ve paid you for something, you owe me. Did you deliver something as valuable as your compensation? Taxpayers/customers have unique power that could propel or undermine our livelihoods. When they find fault in our work we suspect they are self-serving or motivated simply by vengeance. So these judgments can make us angry.

Of course, people expect assessments in these circumstances and from these actors. Societal norms require that subjects of evaluation generally accept or acquiesce to being measured – in book critiques, job interviews, customer satisfaction ratings and performance appraisals. So we stifle the dread and the anger about the process hoping that the outcome will brighten our reputation rather than cast us in shadow. But when reporting anonymously if we like evaluation, the echoing answer is NOooo!

NEXT time, what to do about it.


Author: Thomas Miller is president of National Research Center, Inc. (www.n-r-c.com) (NRC) a data analytics and survey research firm that he founded in 1994 to bring the voice of employees and residents into local government decision-making. He can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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