ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

April 1998


Forging New Ways To Work

Celebrating Success

JCPenney Spells Out A METHOD For Success

Roberts Express Delivers CATs

Stories Of The Future

Taxes, Oscars And Performance Appraisals


Quality, Wherefore Art Thou?
by Peter Block

The Bottom Line Benefits Of Participation
by Cathy Kramer


Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Book Review


Taxes, Oscars And Performance Appraisals
Three Annual Events With Varying Degrees Of Pain

Thom Schamberger has had what anyone would call a successful career. Currently a principal specialist, program management, of the airlift and tanker program at Boeing Company, Long Beach, Calif., he has never received a worthwhile performance appraisal. And for every Thom Schamberger there are millions of other Americans who suffer through the annual performance appraisal system - not because it has any real value, but because, like the April 15th tax deadline, it's an obligatory ritual. To make matters worse, organizations spend thousands of dollars and countless hours to make the ritual work - analyzing distribution factors, designing elaborate compensation schemes around colorful schematics, and identifying hundreds of performance capabilities. Unless you're Thoreau, you are not likely to stop paying taxes, and if you're a manager or worker in America, you most likely won't stop giving and receiving performance appraisals. So what can you do?

Schamberger's preference is to have half hour discussions on a quarterly basis. "I like the discussion to center on our work in the next three months and document how we will accomplish that work," Schamberger says. "Then in three months we discuss what happened, what worked, what didn't." It's not a rating form that is important to Schamberger. "I can do a performance appraisal on a flip chart. It's the process of discussion that is important."

Peter Scholtes, author of the recently released "The Leader's Handbook: Making Things Happen, Getting Things Done", would agree. "Performance appraisals are the wrong thing to do within the context of what is the right thing to do," states Scholtes. "The act of judging is detrimental to performance of any kind. While the act of feedback is useful." Yet American business has struggled for years to find a construct that mixes the two. "Feedback takes place in an atmosphere of trust," according to Scholtes. "As opposed to judgement, which connotes patronizing, condescension and distrust. The dynamics are very different." The alternative to performance appraisal can never be a piece for piece substitute, suggests Scholtes. Companies decide that instead of a traditional system they will use 360-degree appraisals - hoping that this will be some sort of magic pill. "This just deludes people into thinking they have the solution that will make this bitter pill easier to swallow. And with 360-degree systems, you now get criticism from everyone."

Individuals then tend to choose their own form of rebellion. Many simply acknowledge the phoniness and tacitly agree to assign as high an evaluation as possible. In essence, according to Scholtes, the manager is saying, "I recognize that this is fiction, but we have to develop a relationship and there is no correlation to a rating form and our work together."

Yet there are some people who love the annual performance appraisal. "These individuals generally have a displaced need of approval from their father," quips Scholtes. "Or they have always gotten the parental approval and have learned to play the game very well. Like it or not we will never know what someone's real contribution is and we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that we know. There simply is too much variation in performance with so many influences, over which none of us have any control. A belief in a performance appraisal is sort of like a collective belief in a lottery."

Can Performance Appraisals Contribute to
Organizational Learning?

Human resource departments, on the other hand, often justify performance appraisals on the basis of contributing a larger good to the organization, and in cases of termination, legal protection. "Performance appraisal systems can teach an organization a lot about their management system," according to Larry Penwell, associate professor, department of psychology and business administration, Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, Va., and a former senior analyst in information systems handling organizational change issues at GE. "For example, are you recruiting in the right place? Are the employees from one university better than another?" This type of data can have a significant impact on developing effective selection criteria. Performance appraisals can also help organizations determine succession planning - who is ready to move to a higher level in the organization.

Quoting Blumberg-Pringle's model of work performance, Penwell notes that performance is really a function of capacity, opportunity and willingness. Capacity is largely a measure of who gets put in what job - which is a management decision. The second part, opportunity, refers to the available tools, equipment, etc. which is also a management decision. "So two-thirds of this performance equation is influenced directly by management decisions. Job satisfaction, status and legitimacy of participation affect the last component, willingness - all highly ego involved. But this is often a reflection of how management treats an individual. Consequently, even the last third is a huge component of management."

The problem, Penwell purports, is that people do not realize the intricacy of these components as they utilize the appraisal process. But management can learn a lot from an effective system. "GE's incredible human resources system gathers a lot of information. For example, does management training pay off? We learned on one occasion, for example, that training did not pay off. Individuals who did not get the training did better. Which led us to review our selection and screening process."

Even Effective Programs Introduce Conflict
Penwell admits that performance appraisals do introduce a level of conflict in the organization. If one of the purposes of performance appraisal is to help people develop and you evaluate them too critically, you affect their willingness. "If you ask people to self-assess most will tend to rate themselves as a four on a one to five scale," notes Penwell. "So when I tell you that you are a two, I threaten your self-image." Another level of conflict is introduced on the rater's part. "As a manager I have a duty to give you feedback and be objective, but I also have to work with you. I want to be liked. For that matter, how certain am I that I know what good is?"

Finally while performance appraisals can justify your decision to terminate in court, particularly of protected classes, most of us are still "at will employees", according to Michael Glowacki, senior training coordinator, Elkay Manufacturing, Broadview, Ill. "Performance appraisals are one of the most abusive processes in business today. Employees don't care, except as it's tied to monetary rewards, and managers don't put a lot of time into them. To do a good one, I need three or four hours of preparation."

Cindy Kane, senior manager of quality programs, Harris Corporation, Melbourne, Fla., agrees. "As a supervisor, performance appraisals are very time consuming. I like our system because they are done on key elements and dimensions of the job." Harris has developed a number of dimensions to analyze job performance. These dimensions include such things as visionary leadership, sales and persuasion, ability to learn, professional knowledge, etc. "I pick seven out of sixty dimensions," says Kane. "I then write what I thought I did in each of those performance dimensions and put it on a continuum. This has nothing to do with my pay and is much more a reflection process and outlines growth opportunities."

Still, for Thom Schamberger and others performance appraisals are like another annual event, the Academy Awards. "Movie producers release their good movies later in the year for better chances at an Oscar. Performance appraisals are often a reflection of the most recent window of time. You screw up for nine months and make sure you are doing what the boss wants for the last three," Schamberger retorts.
Whether it's taxes, the Oscars or performance appraisals - at least once a year, most everyone suffers through an appraisal system. And it's likely that this will continue until, as Penwell says, companies learn to "hire well, define the work and get out of the way."

April '98 News for a Change | Email Editor


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