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How am I Doing?

Published November 15, 2009 5:16 PM by Glen McDaniel

A few years ago I was consulted by a new manager who was frustrated because several of his employees refused to sign their annual performance evaluation. Some accused him of playing favorites and being unusually harsh and punitive. After speaking with him, I learned that he had made several common but crucial mistakes.

First, using the score of 1 through 5, where 3 was acceptable performance, he decided that to score above a 3 the employee had to, in his words, "walk on water."  Previous managers used 3 as the baseline for the average employee (with 4 as superior and 5 as exemplary); so his employees now felt almost attacked at getting a 3. He made the mistake of not explaining his philosophy ahead of time. He also was very stingy with written comments, thus leaving the employee with the impression that they had done nothing extraordinary in any area. One employee said, "To me 3 is just for showing up."

Years ago maverick New York City Mayor Ed Koch was known for asking his constituents at meetings and in public "How am I doing, New York?" A performance evaluation should basically answer that question for the employee.

Start with the job description which lists all the performance expectations. You cannot reasonably expect an employee to perform outside of what has been mutually decided on. A job description is like a contract and expecting other behavior is a breach of contract.

Give feedback all year long. If an employee is surprised at evaluation time, that says more about the failings of the manager than it does about the employee. You should not keep score (positive or negative) and spring it on an employee once a year.

Arrange a time and place to allow ample time for a discussion. A good evaluation is a two way process and should not be rushed. There should not be just "judgment" by the manager, but feedback and questions from the employee as well. This is a time to evaluate performance, reward good performance and establish new goals and expectations.

As a manager, common mistakes to avoid include the halo effect. This is a cognitive bias whereby the manager is influenced by former behavior. So, the manager might be influenced by something that employee did earlier ( John is all good or all bad).  Or he might even score the employee based on the group to which the manager has mentally placed the employee (racial, gender, troublemaker, all chemistry techs etc). As silly as that sounds, the reasoning is that since all members of that group behave in a certain way, then John's performance cannot be any different.

Another common mistake that managers are guilty of, but rarely aware of, is recency. Recency is a bias that occurs whereby the employee is judged mostly on their most recent behavior. Again it could be something good or bad, but that is what stands out to the manager, so the employee is saddled with that one behavior as a representation of an entire year's performance.

Tools which I have used in the past include having an employee complete his/her own evaluation and then discussing it, pointing out areas of agreement and explaining areas where I rated them differently; with examples of behaviors I would consider acceptable. This can be more time consuming, but is ultimately a very valuable technique.

As a manager I also find 360 degree evaluation really invaluable. That is a process in which I ask all my customers (subordinates, peers, internal and external customers) to rate me confidentially (and preferably anonymously) based on 4 or 5 criteria. A confident manager should consider such honest feedback seriously and modify behavior accordingly.

Performance evaluation is an important tool; not just something required by regulatory agencies; and not just a means to fulfill an HR function. Done poorly it contributes to poor employee morale and does nothing to change behavior. Done well it can improve organizational performance tremendously.

4 comments

Scott, thanks for the feedback. I especially like the fact that you read the "I" in the title as referring to the manager. "How am I doing as a manager?"

I think the evaluation is as much for the manager as the employee. That is why I like 360 degree evaluation.  Rather than just subjectively rating an employee, imagine if the manager received feedback from peers, his/her supervisor and customers. That might be sobering.

When I ask employees "Are you getting what you need from me as your manager?" I pause and rephrase because often we ask questions without waiting for an answer. I will insist "Are you getting the tools and support you need?" "Am I being available enough to you?"

The problem with such an approach is that as a manager you have to be prepared for the answer.

Glen McDaniel November 22, 2009 2:56 PM

Great blog!  The problem with "performance" evaluations is the nature of the beast.  Too often they are used in disciplinary action, and employees know it.  They also know that a few ratings on a form can't describe their competency, judgment, attitude, and overall value -- especially if the one form is used for all.  HR's response to any complaints is invariably, "Do it anyway."  There may not be any interest in making it accurate or useful, only that it be done on time.

Rating people is fine -- I guess -- if reasonable criteria exists.  I've refused to rate people for line items like. "Effectively works," a broadside so vague there is probably no difference between a 1 and a 5.  But I've also balked at rating people on "Error-free work," since "error" is open to interpretation.  Once completed, the evaluation disappears into a black hole, only to reappear should it be time to fire the employee.  It can be a bit ugly.

But it is an opportunity for an frank, honest talk on both sides.  That's gold.

Final thought:  when I read the title of this blog, I assumed the "I" referred to me as a manager.  The conversation and opportunity to improve things is of value to me, and I always end with, "Is there anything I can do for you?"  "Rating" someone seems to me completely counter-productive, more often than not tearing down whatever trust has been built.  That's my frustration.

Scott Warner November 18, 2009 6:26 AM

Oh the "no one deserves more than a 3" story. There are lots of those out there., usually old sad miserable people who want to stick it to others. I bet they would not like it if THEIR supervisor gave them an average-only score.

Another thing that mnay managers do is use evaluation to reward their friends and punish those they dont like. Most times evaluation is just as Glen says just something HR requires.

Jonathan CLS November 17, 2009 7:10 PM
Atlanta GA

Recently I have my evaulation done by my boss. He told me I have bad customer service because of my english is not good. In my mind, I was "shoke." I deal 90% of the phone calls and hanged every single one approciately. The only things in my mind at that time was "I am not going to get that promotion." I was seeking fo...r promotion at the time and of course, the end result is I didn't get the promotion. My boss basically repeated the same things that the instrument specialist told me a day or two early. She was indicating I have a poor english skills which the POCC position might not be suitable for me because it need to write SOP etc..and provided previous example on how the lab director corrected the QC specialist's grammer mistaken during the inspection. Personally, I have not been recovered from that and I am not sure how long I will take me to get over it!Read More

Anna November 16, 2009 12:10 AM

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