Performance reviews are about spreadsheets, not judgments

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Apr 07

Performance reviews used to require judgments about the performance of managers and employees. Today, however, much of the judgment has been removed through the “tyranny of the explicit,” where some performance trait is shown via  a number or statistic and therefore must be accurate and true.

The Cognitive Edge, in a critical review of management practice notes that:

The classic example is the salary review. It used to be a process of judgment (a word sadly missing in management these days) to determine pay for people who reported to you. It required the ability to defend a judgment based on knowledge of the individual. What happens now is based entirely on spreadsheets. Assessments based on arbitrary general categories produce multiple tables. Distribution models that assume standard distributions of competence across units generate figures and the deal is done. The manager can now be the employee’s friend, its not their fault, the system has allocated the pay, they are just the messenger. Abrogation of responsibility not assumption.

Performance reviews are now less about judgments

But, of course, you sensed this, didn’t you? Management teams have come to rely more and more on specific goals, your goal attainment and making the number no matter what it takes. Consequently, companies and their management teams are increasingly sophisticated in their use of building spreadsheets that reflect goals and allow for statistical differentiation between employees and employee groups.

Not that the numbers are true. If you looked at your optimistic goal attainment before the crash of the Great Recession, you might have given yourself a good chance of meeting them. Then the world changed. If you are in a company like most others, your goals didn’t change even though all the assumptions behind the goals did. Then your performance review came and you didn’t get a raise. Now maybe the company didn’t have enough money or certainty to give you a raise, but instead, they point to your goal attainment and shrug their shoulders.

It’s all about goal attainment, you know.

Spreadsheets are in

There is a reason I spend so much time and effort in the SMART Goals and Performance Review products on the traps set for you on your goals when it comes time to get your performance review. There is a reason I include a spreadsheet that shows how you can differentiate your performance to your coworkers. It’s because management is usually looking at the goals from their viewpoint–the department–instead of your viewpoint–your performance.

You need to be able to counter that in your negotiations.

A quick example

Let’s say that it is important for your department to end the year with no adverse audit findings. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But let’s look at the “tyranny of the explicit” and see how that translates into your performance review spreadsheet.

Because you can have no adverse audit findings, it means you get a binary performance review on this goal: you either succeed in not getting any adverse findings–where you get rated the average, successful rating (you met your goal)–or you fail, in which case you hit the “needs help” radar all across the management team.

There is no way for you to win. You cannot get a higher rating because the goal is set up as an “all or nothing” goal and you have a very high risk of not meeting your goal. You get trapped all because the goal represents a need in the department, not necessarily your need.

That’s the reason I spend so much time on how your goals are set up, tracked, changed and incorporated into your performance review.

Management has abrogated their responsibility to judge your performance. Instead, we get goals and numbers and spreadsheets…and not much human about the whole process.

But, we’re not the ones deciding the process. So let’s make sure we understand how to defend and negotiate for ourselves.