08 August 2011

Abolish Self-Appraisal? Not So Fast

I’ve just spent the morning flipping through the Harvard Business Review blog, with the odd tidbit of divergent thinking catching my eye (and my Twitter timeline). One item that provoked a “yes, but…” reaction was this item from Dick Grote in which he recommends abolishing self-appraisals from the annual employee review ritual. His argument makes some sort of sense, from a deterministic, quant-oriented, managerialist perspective in which the manager stands in loco parentis, so to speak:
I found study after study that consistently demonstrated that individuals are notoriously inaccurate in assessing their own performance, and the poorer the performer, the higher (and more inaccurate) the self-appraisal. Research by the consulting firm Lominger, Inc. indicates that “the overall correlation between self-ratings and performance was .00. The most accurate rater by far is the immediate boss.”

Further, in their article “Unskilled and Unaware of It,” Cornell University researchers Justin Kruger and David Dunning report that, “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, they are left with the mistaken impression that they are doing just fine.”

One senior executive, describing his company's experience using a forced-ranking procedure to identify its A, B, and C performers, told me of the same problem: “The As are afraid they'll be considered Bs, the Bs are scared they'll be seen as Cs, and all the Cs are convinced that they're A players.”
A pretty sad indictment of self-appraisal, overall. For me, however, jumping to the conclusion that because people are not skilled at self-appraisal the practice should be eliminated suggests (through similar logic) that, since the vast majority of managers at all levels have little training or expertise in assessment, appraisal, or organizational psychology, and are pretty poor at it, all appraisals should be done away with. Similarly for coaching, correction, motivation, and almost every other practice that is part and parcel of a manager’s day-to-day work. (And let me tell you: working as an organizational therapist and leadership coach, there are days when I am sorely tempted to suggest just that!)

The effect of annual job appraisals – invariably tied to annual salary reviews – is to reinforce the carrot-and-stick motivational theory, a theory to which we have become so culturally indoctrinated that it is taken as a law of human behaviour from our earliest childhood memories: “if you take out the garbage, clean your room, finish your peas, and do your homework, you’ll receive your full allowance.” Why does any adult manager today believe that such a paternalistic approach to contemporary employees will result in anything other than coerced compliance and unthinking adherence to strictly stated procedures—the bane of motivation, innovation, and success? (As an aside, have a look at Dan Pink’s Drive for an understanding of what really motivates people.)

Appreciative Practices (an adjunct to the OD intervention of Appreciative Inquiry) is one way of helping everyone – managers and their staff alike – learn the process of appropriate and useful reflection that encourages both organizational and individual learning from one’s activities. Grote, in his blog post, suggests that “a more effective approach is for the supervisor, at the start of performance appraisal season, to ask each direct report to send him an informal list of his or her most important accomplishments and achievements during the appraisal period.” Sadly, this focus on the “most important accomplishments and objectives” misses what I believe to be the true measure of contemporary organizational effectiveness in a complex environment, namely one’s tactility or the effects one has had on those whom the individual touches.

By considering effects from a place of positive contributions, an employee’s true value to the complexity of the organization can be appropriately assessed. An employee may be a tremendous catalyst to innovation, or to overall group dynamics that facilitated a team’s over-the-top performance. It is almost always the case that a supposed failure (specifically: failure to achieve one or more objectives that were stated 12 months prior without the benefit of precognitive abilities in either the manager or employee) has many very successful catalyzing aspects wrapped up in that supposed lack of achievement. Further, such an approach enables and encourages the employee not only to focus on their own development, but to become aware of development opportunities among the various constituencies with which s/he interacts. I recently described such a case in which an organization that formerly was guilty of all the shortcomings of self-appraisal to which Grote alludes was easily facilitated to accomplish the benefits of reflective learning instead.

So, in a funny way, I support Grote’s call for abolishing self-appraisals as part of the annual performance review. In fact I would go a step farther: abolish the annual performance review altogether (and especially, decouple it from compensation). In its place, substitute a culture of continuous, reflective and appreciative practices. An employee will always know where s/he stands, and an organization will always gain the benefit of learning and innovation.

1 comment:

Ian Glendinning said...

The idea that self-appraisal provides a measure of performance was surely never the point. That's what the immediate boss - setting the tasks and goals against which performance is judged - is for.

The point of self-appraisal is for the organization to get a handle on the employees view of the organization and job, and individual aspirations - in order to start a conversation. A conversation with a checklist of headings - adds something to the myriad of ad-hoc conversational possibilities during normal business.