The Performance Review: It's Not a Report Card

There are many different opinions about performance reviews. Some organizations have formal reviews once per year with a check point at midyear. Other organizations are being less formal and have gotten rid of the formal review process altogether in hopes that their leaders will have performance conversations at a regular, casual cadence. There is also almost every other scenario in between – quarterly reviews, formal and informal, documented and undocumented. Organizations also are quarreling over the performance rating scale. Should it be a 1-5 scale? How about a 1-3 scale? What about simply a rating of “meets” or “did not meets?” I have recently learned of an organization that has eliminated ratings altogether…kind of. See, the employees think they aren’t being rated but the leaders and HR professionals have a rating scale that is private. In essence, they are lying to the people. Why?

Well the reason is fairly simple. The performance review and the rating process is the single, system-wide demotivator at work. People feel awful after reviews. Often this is associated with a review that was less than the associate believed he or she deserved. Think about a time when you were rated less than you deserved. How did you respond? Did you pout for weeks? Were you frustrated? Did you spend time trying to convince yourself and others of your worth? How about stepping down? Did your work-actions start to match base-line behavior when it was stellar before the review? If so, this is very common. It is one of the main reasons leaders overrate employees. The last thing they want to do is de-motivate an already largely disengaged team. For this reason, leaders everywhere have used the performance rating as a motivational tool rather than an assessment of performance which is how it was intended to be utilized. They will give people ratings higher than what is truly accurate in an effort to ward off negative consequences of rating accurately low or worse inaccurately low. There is a better way.

The real issue isn’t the rating or the scale. The real issue is the mindset we all have about performance ratings in the workplace. For explanation purposes, let’s use the Likert 5-point scale. When we rate people on a scale of 1-5, what they see is an A-F scale.

The problem with this is that in school when we were rated on an A-F scale, a C represented average. In that case average meant that you did some of your homework, you probably completed all of your test but you did so without mastery of the information. An A on the other hand, represented that you had done almost everything correctly. If you were unlucky enough to get D’s and F’s you were likely considered to be a failure.

Work is not school.

For work you get paid to complete all of your objectives. You are not given an A for completing all of your objectives, your paycheck is the reward for that. In fact, at work, if you did everything you were supposed to do that is what is expected and that should represent pretty run-of-the-mill or average behavior. In our organizations, a C or a 3 is perfect for the paycheck you receive.

While we are jacking around with the process and the scale, the issue lies in the mindset that a C or a 3 is an indication that we have not done something correctly. It’s a new day and while we are continuously learning we are not in school anymore. We are getting compensated at a rate we agreed to in order to deliver a specific outcome each quarter, cycle or year. If we can disconnect the feelings people remember of their reports cards from the performance review and ratings, we can likely have real conversations that matter. We might also be able to really do something about the engagement numbers once and for all.

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