Performance appraisal

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The anthropology of the office™

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“The merit rating nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, [and] nourishes rivalry and politics. It leaves people bitter, crushed, bruised, battered, desolate, despondent, dejected, feeling inferior, some even depressed, unfit for work for weeks after receipt of rating, unable to comprehend why they are inferior. It is unfair, as it ascribes to the people in a group differences that may be caused totally by the system that they work in.”

W. Edwards Deming

You could call it many things: a orchestrated scheme for institutionalised nepotism; a sanctioned suburbia of rotten boroughs; management-sponsored low-level cronyism; a massive multi-player online role-playing game or, most emphatically, a colossal, unflinchingly tedious waste of an institution’s collected time and resources.

One thing you may be sure it is not is a meaningful way of evaluating staff.

The “360” is administered, as one might administer cod liver oil to an unwilling child, by the good people of human resources. They alone hold any affection for it — why wouldn’t they? It keeps them gainfully occupied for seven months of the year — and theirs are the ultimata and naked threats that accompany its launch each year.

Inevitably it is decreed: this year there will be no deadline extensions; this year it will be simple; this year the system will not freeze or fail to save your work when it unexpectedly crashes at fifteen minutes to midnight on the deadline for submission — a deadline which contracts with every year that passes.

Each year, defiant non-compliance and massive IT malfunction ensure it will be otherwise. The scope of the 360 — how extensive; how frequent; how in-depth — is a good measure of how captive a firm is to its HR department. It might be fun to chart aggregate time invested in the 360 process against share price.

No-one doubts the 360 is well-intended. So was Neville Chamberlain in Munich. By polling those with whom an employee has most closely worked regardless of rank, department or disposition, it is meant to provide a comprehensive and unbiased analysis of each employee’s contribution to the firm’s performance.

Scoring is numeric, against standardised criteria: i.e., multi-choice. Since marks out of five fail to provide a script for the awkward half-hour “performance conversation” one must conduct months after the process completes, appraisers have to compose prose evaluations as well. Even the most public-spirited employee will find this trying.

Reducing matters to statistical analysis which can be fitted to a normal distribution is, of course, the sort of thing that aspiring management consultants adore, dispensing as it does with any need to understand the fundamentals of the business. Everyone else thinks it is lunacy. If an employee’s contribution really can be reduced to a percentage, the open question is why have the employee at all?

And that, a management consultant might say, is exactly the point.

Nonetheless, the 360 is wide-open to abuse. Unless he is uncommonly stupid, no employee will nominate anyone with whom he hasn ot already sealed a pact for mutually-assured admiration.

To correct this bias, some systems allow “unsolicited anonymous feedback”. But bitter indeed is she who goes out of her way to torpedo a colleague who has at least done her the favour of not requesting an appraisal. Bitter, and short of better things to do. Most appraisers have trouble summoning the will to appraise those whom they do have to evaluate without volunteering to character assassinate those they don’t.

Some institutions will even appraise the appraisers on the largesse of their appraisals, sanctioning those who are wantonly positive and rebasing their grades. But this is to concede the system is irreconcilably broken and really only assesses an individual’s acumen at knowing who will put in a good word.

It is also to forget the all conquering power of one’s direct line manager (and, for that matter, hers). No manager in her right mind will allow the statistical output of an obviously crooked system override innate prejudice. Simply put, if your boss thinks you’re a moron, no amount of “consistently exceeds expectations” scores from your buddies in operations will make a rat’s arse of difference to your hopes of promotion. And nor should they.

The implied, and wholly false, presumption of a 360 performance appraisal system is that performance management can somehow be crowd-sourced. If that were true, there would be little need for middle management or human resources — now there’s a thought — as the firm would operate like the free market it is meant to be, and not the dictatorship it in fact is.

Fat chance of that, though.

The horizontal 360

Geometers will at once recognise that 360 degrees describes a complete revolution in a plane of two, and not three, dimensions. This got us wondering: if, as per modern dogma, employment really is a “two way conversation”, in which each side has obligations and rights; a symbiotic ecosystem where each party works for the enduring benefit of the other, then where is the company performance appraisal? At what point do staff get to say to their corporate overlords, and the gilded agents who occupy its executive suite that they have lacked focus, been ineffective, failed to deliver on key expectations?

“Ah, but that is the employee survey!” they will cry. But it isn’t, is it? This is the change paradox: management is, in this regard, like that pestering email sent from an unmonitored account: good for communication in one way only. Talking, not listening. A skilfully contrived questionnaire, begging questions already answered in management’s own meta-theory, cannot critically assess management’s performance. All answers it yields, 1 through 5, are of a piece with the existing theory of the game. The paradigm governs what count as good questions as well as what could as good answers. Thanks to the agency problem, we feel this to be necessarily so: no agent designs a survey designed to prove her own redundancy. The employee survey is prisoner of the paradigm from which it emanates.

See also