The People Aren’t the Problem

Two years, nine months, twelve days, and six hours.

That’s how long it took between the time I was hired and my first “annual” appraisal. I remember it because HR sent me notices every month reminding me how late my appraisal was. As a new employee, I was scared to death that each notice was going to be accompanied by a pink slip. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I wasn’t the one holding up the appraisal. It wasn’t even my supervisor holding it up; it was her supervisor who had been neglectful in the evaluation of my duties and holding any mentoring sessions.

When he finally summoned me to his office, he shoved a four-page document across his sloppy desk and flatly said, “Sign at the yellow flag thing. You got all 5s.” He quickly added, “Don’t get too happy. Everyone gets all 5s.”

I was happy to end the suspense from HR and to get any feedback at all before I received my five-year pin. This was my first job out of college and while I have never been one to need a grade to tell me how well I was doing in class, it was always nice to get a sign that someone at least thought I was worthy of employment.

The next year’s evaluation was much more timely. A new evaluation system complete with a new easier-to-read form was being tested, and I was called in for my session almost a year later to the day. I was handed the new form while it was explained to me that there was a new rating system guideline and I should carefully read and fully understand exactly what each number 1-5 meant. All scoring had to be justified with a short write-up, and if improvement was needed there was a new section to list some annual goals. The one I was given was blank. I was to evaluate myself and the boss would sign it. I got all 5s. My write-ups were glowing.

The running joke in our small office was that in order to get a 4 you had to kill someone. There was an employee who once “borrowed” a $15,000 poster printer to make birthday posters for his son. He used hundreds of dollars worth of supplies and the machine required recalibrating by a guy they flew in from Dallas. That individual got all 5s (not the Dallas guy; I don’t know what he got).

Getting a 4 was thought to be a career death-sentence. If you didn’t score as exceptional you could kiss any chance of promotion goodbye. Not only was it a personal career-killer, but urban legend had it that supervisors with employees performing so poorly as to score an “Above Average” but not “Exceptional” could start packing the office into boxes as well. It was as if the organization only hired excellence, and people only performed up to their full potential. (But then wouldn’t that have made excellence the average?)

It reminds me of the scene in The Incredibles when Syndrome is monologuing about his plans to give everyone special powers, because when everyone is special, “no one is.” Such was the case in our corner of government. If everyone got 5s, even computer guy, then evaluations meant nothing.

Half of you are probably thinking what we really needed was a better evaluation system — one that wouldn’t allow employees to fill out their own forms, that tracked performance throughout the year, and that did not allow managers to rate so flippantly. A system with accountability. The other half of you are thinking that performance evaluations are a universal waste of time. Half of you are right.

Fast-forward a decade and I’m in another corner of government, thousands of miles away by land and millions of miles away by culture. The topic of today’s training? The new electronic evaluation system. The key to this one is a built-in feature that allows you to rate only 5 percent of your staff as excellent. The other 95 percent must be rated average or below, so the “excellent” 5 percent had really better stand out. And since they do, a 2 percent raise is proposed for all employees receiving that rating.

Before we even saw the login screen, one of my fellow managers was writing the names of all her employees on a legal pad. She was divvying them up into small groups. “Trying to find your 5 percent super employees?” I asked.

“Just figuring out who I can give the raise to this year and who will have to wait a year,” she answered as she built a rotation of excellence while the instructor pined over the virtues of the integrity they had been able to program into this system.

The truth is, most of us are not who we are because of the evaluations we have received. Most evaluations don’t serve us. They weren’t designed to. They were designed to give managers a tool to work with bad employees. If you are a bad employee, please go read another blog; we only want 5s and better here. The very idea of it is moldy.

“But our evaluation process rewards good employees.” Yeah…. but they are still moldy. The idea that I need an external motivational tool tied to a pin, a mug or a 2 percent raise is moldy. Want proof, all you little Lisa Simpsons who need to be rated and loved? If I took away your evaluation systems tomorrow, would you start to slack off? Would your performance stats plummet? Would you start playing mine-sweeper between smoke breaks and walks around the grounds?

Didn’t think so. Good performers are good performers. See Ken’s earlier post on motivation.

At their core, evaluations are moldy because they concentrate on the employee. As managers, many of us have spent long hours filling out these report cards, fully aware that our good employees would come in and be rock stars and our bad employees are going to come in and be marginally adequate no matter how we scored either group.

So what do we do about it?

First, abolish the performance appraisal now. Get rid of them if you can. Toss them aside. Tell your rock stars you appreciate them, and deal with your marginally adequate emloyees like a manager should — one-on-one, without a rating, performance targets or coaching sessions. Find out why they can’t do better and help them remove the obstacles in their way.

Second, quit thinking that the root causes of your performance problems are the employees. All the best employees in the world cannot compensate for a twisted-up pipe. Look at how the work is done and what performance is lost in the process first. The root cause of most of our issues lies in the pipes.

Third, find a way to gauge the performance of your work as a whole and not individually. And do it for the right reasons…to learn how the office performs as a whole, and to identify where in the process we need to improve. It’s not an accountability stick.

365 days a year, that’s when employees want to hear from you. And what they want to hear is how their role in the mission is working and what public great is being accomplished thanks to their efforts. That’s the Simple Green to your moldy walls. Focusing on the work and the outcomes first, and people’s role in that second. You’ll find switching how you view the work does a lot to kill the mold that is robbing you of your energy.

One Response to “The People Aren’t the Problem”

  1. Brian Donohoe says:

    Well stated Bill. In Alaska Public Assistance, we continue to struggle with the performance evaluation issue. In addition to your observations above, as our field services locations embrace process management strategies, moving away from caseload management, identifying individual performance failures becomes even less meaningful. Unfortunately for our agency, the constraints of our personnel division dictate a traditional approach to appraisal. As we work through this issue, I’ll let you know what we develop.

    Thanks again for spot-on observations!


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