December 13, 1998

"I've Closed My Eyes to the Cold Hard Truth I'm Seeing" -
Making Performance Appraisal Work

LA&M column: On Managing
John Lubans, Jr.

In my management classes, the segment on performance appraisal has students doing an "imaginary" assessment. They are encouraged to create a problematic individual for their written evaluation. Many find this the most difficult assignment - and completing the 90-day Work Goals form, for follow up with their "problem employee",  is no less easy.

Once they've survived this assignment, I ask them to imagine an organization without a formal performance appraisal system. How will they, as supervisors, communicate organizational and individual goals and development needs? My method is to move the student into questioning the unquestioned  effectiveness of the commonly accepted performance appraisal (PA) process. Does PA make a difference?

A system of performance appraisal is  emblematic of 20th century organizations, with probably over 80% of all libraries of any size using PA. The version they use can be a customized one or one required by the larger organizational entity, like a county government or university. PA is evidential of what many would term "well run" and accountable organizations. Then again, some firms, even libraries, ignore PA systems and staffs do amazingly well - they are productive, flexible and creative. How can this be?

Does the research evidence support the sizable investment and effort of PA? A review reveals much written about PA techniques and strategies, but little about results.  No more enlightening are case discussions of PA systems themselves,  since they do not mention any productive outcomes.

A few years ago, I came across an airline magazine ad hawking THE answer for surviving obligatory personnel evaluations: software, at a modest cost, to make writing the PA routine and gain the manager much needed time for "real work". Not only would the software supply paragraphs of evaluatory prose, the words were guaranteed litigation proof.  Shortly after, I came across another indicator that PA had become an established industry: a low tech approach available in teacher supply stores -  evaluation phrase books for use on student report cards and in year-end assessments.

At best, PA is an imperfect approach. Its application probably does encourage communication "for the record" and can benefit staff who are unclear about job expectations. But, the process can become superficial and a ready source for feeding corporate cynicism.

My column will consider reasons why we often rely on PA, some of its conundrums, and suggestions for making PA a positive experience for managers and staff.

Why PA?

Iíve concluded that organizations abhor a PA vacuum. PA has an industrial-strength tenacity. If a PA system is abandoned or ignored,  its advocates, inside and outside  the organization begin to press for a formal evaluation process. And why not? 

We want staff to know what is expected,
we want staff to have up to date job descriptions,
we want supervisors to talk with staff and vice versa,
we want staff to be recognized for doing well, and
we want staff to improve, to develop, and to change with the job.

Or do we? Sometimes we choose, or have chosen for us, the least direct path to get to where we want to be. 

Let's consider a typical scenario:

At Library X, there is no formal PA system.  The conventional wisdom has it that there is too little communication among staff and supervisors with much conflict avoidance. The perceived insufficient communication in the organization is attributed to the lack of a performance appraisal system. Therefore, instituting PA will assure communication between supervisors and staff. Without exploring other options, Library X adopts a labor intensive PA apparatus so that people will talk to each other.

This example demonstrates the organization's will to believe in PA as a good thing, an essential building block in the organization's structure. David Whyte, the poet,  adds to our understanding of how common sense can be suspended in the organization when management begins to rely on prescribed and ready made solutions. It is as if "The complexity of the world could be accounted for (corporations) fervently hoped, by a simple increase in the thickness of the company manual." (1)

What can go awry and why? Unintended consequences.

PA has the potential for improving the organization. Results are good if, according to Herzberg, the PA process emphasizes achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, advancement, and personal growth for the individual. (2)

If PA is imposed on employees as company policy, then it becomes one of the primary dissatisfiers in the workplace. That can occur because management unwittingly seeks to retain most of the control over the PA process.

Sometimes we want PA to do too much. For example, coupling PA to salary decisions may seem efficient. But invariably, the two processes work against each other. Money is largely a budgetary decision for the organization while performance appraisal is about individual development. Studies show that this "stick and carrot" way of motivation is less than effective.  In general, people are not motivated by money. Management often compounds the problem by setting quotas, e.g. only 25% of staff can be scored at "exceeds expectations" for the salary increment, the carrot. Supervisors and staff often are forced into a tacit collusion of "turn taking" for so called "merit" pay. And so it goes.

William Deming the statistical genius who brought Japan into prominence as a producer of quality goods, did not mince words about PA. He entombed it in his list of 7 deadly corporate diseases:

"Personal review systems, or evaluation of performance, merit rating, annual review, or annual appraisal, by whatever name, for people in management, the effects of which are devastating....Even management by fear would be better." (3)

Well, what would he have in its place? I would guess he would say in his obscure, not-suffering-fools-gladly way, that management's role is simply "to drive out fear".

Here's another library case, a conundrum:

Library Y consciously abandoned PA several years ago.  Overall productivity, quantified by numerous work measures, shows steady gains, soaring in some cases (even when controlling for computer applications). Is there a cause and effect relationship? Can the absence of PA result in better performance? Not exactly. 

What made the difference for Library Y was a strong leadership emphasis on team goals, clear expectations from team leaders, attention to team development, and an emphasis on coaching and challenging rather than directing. 

How to make PA work.

- Budget time enough for the manager and staff to reflect on             individual performance. In most organizations, assessment is             an add-on, squeezed into crowded schedules.

- Let PA do what it is meant to do, no more.  Understand that more             complicated forms, more frequent reviews, more signatures             aggravate, not solve, communication or feedback problems.

- Solve communication problems separately from PA with coaching,             counseling and training. What is needed is less  administrative control and more training for managers to become more adept at talking with people, about checking in, about seeking tounderstand, and about support.

- Use group assessment tools, that facilitate feedback among team             and departmental members. (4) A few of these tools, developed and used with positive results at Duke University, can be viewed at:


- Reflect on why  the University of Canberra has chosen to emphasize staff development, not evaluation. ("Regrowing Staff" is their             term). PA has been supplanted by an annual  session for each staff member with the library director to gauge where they      are in their career and what training and development is needed. (5)

- Experiment with the Plus/Delta approach for giving staff feedback.             At a workshop I attended, each participant was asked to list his or her strengths and areas for development (deltas) on a flip chart. Then each person went over the list in front of the full group. The  group amended the list,  adding both plusses and deltas. 

Those amended lists became an affirmation of strengths and a confirmation of areas for development. Individuals showed             keen insights into their own weaknesses, often listing them,    thereby permitting other participants to agree or disagree. On occasion, an individual's perceived "weakness"  was rated as a strength by the group.

Most importantly, what any manager should do and can do is to give feedback in timely and caring ways. I've learned, from working in  outdoor adventure leadership programs, that the best feedback:

is intended to be helpful,
includes positive elements (not just negative ones),
deals with issues that are within the control of the receiver,
is specific and clear,
is cross-checked with the receiver for understanding,
leaves the receiver free to determine their own solution and             corresponding behavior (now, there's a challenge for the work              place).
is solicited, not imposed (another challenge!),
is given when it is needed, and, if nothing else,
is clear, concise, caring, and constructive 


1. David Whyte, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, (New York: Doubleday, 1995) p.10:

2. Frederick Herzberg, "One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?," Harvard Business Review 65 (September/October, 1987):109-120.

3. Quoted by Peter Scholtes, et al., The Team Handbook: How to Use Teams to Improve Quality  (Madison, WI.: Joiner Associates. 1992).p. 2-4.

4. These tools include:  Rating Teamwork, Team Member Development, and Team Meeting Assessment.  Another tool on the Web site, the Home Team Leader Assessment is an example of upward evaluation - subordinates give anonymous feedback to leadership. While all these emphasize team process, each is anchored in getting the job done, improving customer services and in encouraging creativity in the team.

5. Lois Jennings, "Regrowing Staff: Managerial Priority for the Future of University Libraries," The Public Access Computer Systems Review 3,  no. 3. (1992): 4-15.