Volume 141, April 2015: Performance Appraisals

Keyzine: An E-zine for Leaders about the People Side of Business

This is a monthly electronic magazine for anyone who wants to be a better leader, coach, facilitator, or simply, to tune up their people skills. It is a complimentary publication, devoted to the next evolution of Quality Thinking.

Publisher: © Key Associates, 2015 ISSN # 1545-8873

“Performance appraisals are numbers laid over opinion.” – John Dowd, Quality Consultant

Dr. W. Edwards Deming considered evaluation of performance, merit rating, or annual review “a deadly disease in American business.” He maintained that performance appraisals (PA’s) should be eliminated because they: (a) are designed based on flawed assumptions; (b) have a damaging effect on collaboration and systems improvement, and (c) are a barrier to pride and joy in work.

Classic performance appraisals are flawed because:

  • PA’s assume that individuals have complete control over their performance outcomes, without regard to the events, circumstances, and processes over which they have no control.
  • PA’s focus on individuals without recognizing that most work results from interactions between people and teams.
  • PA’s operate as if there is objective and consistent measurement.
  • PA’s assume vast differences between employees’ natural talents, when in fact their differences are more attributable to the variability of systems in which they work, including the training they are given.
  • PA systems are expected to perform too many functions, such as feedback for improvement, pay raises, promotions, ranking, native ability, and plans for development.

Don Berwick MD (1989) writes, “Practically no system of measurement – at least none that measures people’s performance – is robust enough to survive the fear of those who are measured. Most measurement tools eventually come under the control of those studied, and in their fear such people do not ask what measurement can tell them, but rather how they can make it safe. The inspector says, ‘I will find out if you are deficient.’ The subject replies, ‘I will therefore prove I am not deficient’ – and seeks not understanding, but escape.” When there is a win/lose atmosphere, when ratings are artificially scarce, systems are squeezed and circumvented for individual gain. The appraisal then encourages mediocrity, by setting safe goals that can be easily achieved.

Peter Sholtes gives a marvelous performance in the film, The Case Against Performance Appraisal (1988). He cajoles the audience, wondering what to replace PA with. “If you take out an appendix, must you replace it with something? If you quit smoking, must you put something else burning in your mouth?”

Everyone benefits from helpful feedback, not judgment. Many of our QI clients eventually separated pay from performance, dropped ratings and rankings, but kept the anecdotal feedback, which the employees enjoyed. They tied raises to the overall performance of the organization. At the Center for Continuous Improvement, each of us collected our own data on process performance, gathered feedback from our clients, made our self-evaluation, and put forth a learning plan.

Practice Point

Inspect your current appraisal systems for toxicity. Make sure they are structured as educational and not top-down or akin to going to the school principal’s office. Regular and routine feedback should be provided throughout the year. At the time of scheduled feedback, there should be no surprises.

Experiment with different ways to reward people; try some of these other methods. Have logic between what you believe and how you pay. If you must reward with pay, recognize and celebrate teams who exhibit stewardship, learning, and continuous improvement. Support intrinsic motivation – with gratitude, recognition, and celebration. Ask your employees for their self-appraisal.

Alternatives to Performance Appraisals

  • Provide Ongoing Performance Feedback
  • Conduct Interactive, Two-Way Evaluation of Each Other
  • Practice Self-evaluation
  • List Major Feedback Resources
  • Use Customer Feedback
  • Identify Major Processes and Work Groups
  • Study Processes and Variation
  • Determine Training and Development Needs
  • Emphasize Both Personal and Professional Learning
  • Recognize Superior Performance and Have Those Individuals/Teams Teach Others
  • Institute Apprenticeship
  • Conduct a Skills Assessment
  • Practice Job Rotation and Special Assignments
  • Determine Pay Raises by Other Means, such as Market Value, Profit-sharing, Pay for Knowledge, Career Ladders


Buy MK’s new book!