Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Life Skill: Perfomance Assessment Goes Both Ways

There's a lot of talk on HR websites about performance management. Traditional corporate performance management has a popular assessment system called forced ranking (in education we called this the Bell Curve.) The performers in the top 10% get a ranking number of 1, the next group get a ranking of 2, then 3, and the bottom 10% of performers get the lowest ranking number: 4. Managers and employees are up in arms saying it encourages ugly competition between employees and eradicates all team building efforts.

There are others who rave about this system saying that it allows for comparitive assessment between employees. If all the employees in your team "exceed expectations" then how do you differentiate your employees to upper management?

Well, let's start by pointing out the obvious -fitting the people on your team into a numerical rank can be short sighted. In a workplace where each employee is performing the same job function such as on a sales team or in a call centre, performance ranking is easier because performance can be reduced to numbers (i.e. dollar brought in, number of calls, etc.)

But more and more workplaces these days are made up of teams of people who perform different jobs and who bring different skills sets to the group. Comparing their performance to each other becomes a complex task because the criteria must be the same between the employees being assessed and compared. But some employees bring in dollars and others don't. Some employees have expert technical skills and others don't. How do you compare their performance?

Defining the criteria becomes a challenge in identifying transferrable skills that apply to every job function. This could include things like "Works well with others," "Completes work on time" or "Keeps up to date with industry advances." Huh. This reminds me of the "work habits and social development" section of your old school report card. You remember that section, right? Did you get an E for Excellent, a G for Good, an S for Satisfactory or an N for Needs Improvement? Do you even remember? Probably not. But I bet you remember that A in Math class one year.

(Wow, so that A in math wasn't as important as the E you got for shows pride in work...? And yet many parents still pay for A's. But I digress...)

So transferrable skills could potentially cost you a job. Funny thing is that transferrable skills are learned through experience. They are skills that can be coached and trained. A strong manager knows this and is able to coach their team members to success and build a team supported by their employees strengths.

So there you have it. It's not the concept of assessing and ranking employees that bothers me.

Nope, what bothers me about traditional performance assessment is two things. One, to be effective assessment criteria often ends up being based on transferrable skills. Skills that are learned through life experiences and can be learned with a good coach. Two, that the assessment is a one way street where only the employee is expected to engage, perform and learn to the expectations.

In order to perform well, most of us have to be experiencing a positive relationship. Hopefully an employee feels positive about their work, their team and management. A relationship is between two or more people (or things.) A relationship is a two way street.

In forced ranking, as soon as the employee is ranked low, the relationship is strained and it takes a very intuitive manager who has strong interpersonal skills to be able to coach the employee and bring the situation back into the positive. Most times the situation is doomed from the get go.

Think about all the stories you've heard about the kid in class who gets terrible grades, year after year until he meets just one teacher who believes in him and helps him so his grades improve and his life is changed forever. That teacher saw potential, believed in the value of that child and was skilled and talented enough to modify their own style of teaching to build on that child's strengths.

Sadly there are many managers out there that lack team building vision, don't see an employee for their worth, who aren't able to train or coach well and have no interest in recognizing how their own personal management style (or lack of skills, or professional misgivings) may have contributed to poor performance in the first place.

We tell employees to welcome feedback, to learn from the high achievers around them and to strive to be top performers. If you're hung up on deciding what performance management system to use and the details of how to use it, you've lost sight of the fact that you manage people. And people function as one half (or one part) of a relationship between each other.

What would happen if your team had to assess your performance? Your team, if asked (and the fact that they're not is what I take issue with) might rank you as a manager in the bottom 10%. In which case you have bigger issues in your life to sort out. Maybe managing people is not your calling. Those in a position of authority who fear assessment are those who act without authenticity and integrity. And those people do not deserve power.

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