Performance Appraisals Drive Mediocrity


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It is mid-year

If you work in the corporate world that means you have been busy writing appraisals.  If you have never seen one, the standard corporate appraisal form has about 5 sections:

  1. Progress Against Objectives — what you did
  2. Fit with Competency Framework — how you did it
  3. Core Strengths — things you did well
  4. Areas for Development — things you screwed up (or never had a hope in hell in the first place)
  5. Indicative Rating — some platitude about being “good” or “meeting standard”

The development obsession

The only bit anybody cares about when reading their appraisal is “Section 4: Areas for Development”.  If you are a bright young thing, acting on section 4 is the way to climb the corporate ladder.  If you are (let’s say) more mature, fixing section 4 keeps the mortgage payments coming.

Everybody obsesses about section 4.

We all know that “Section 3: Core Strengths” is only a way to butter us up for the bad news to come in sections 4 and 5.  Nobody ever gets excited by section 3.

Creating a well-rounded workforce

The intention is to produce a workforce full of proficient, competent people.  People who are good at everything and have had the rough edges knocked off them.

The outcome is different…

The appraisal produces a bunch of people who are hungry to do things they aren’t very good at.

Every 6 months it creates a new cohort of employees who are desperate to test their metal in strategic leadership or presentation skills or whatever their boss has told them they are failing at. All in the hope that they can nudge their performance rating past “good” towards “very strong” or maybe even “exceptional”.

The sad truth

Working on the things you are bad at will only ever make you average.  It will probably make you unhappy as well. There is nothing so miserable as doing something you know you are bad at.

It is far better to focus on your strengths.

At the age of 50 I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m better than most at concepts and ideas. I can dig into the numbers, see the wood from the trees and find opportunities.  Unfortunately…

  • I am god awful at organising things
  • My attention to detail is dreadful
  • Technicalities bore me to tears
  • I am invariably running late

My boss has appraised me of my character flaws (repeatedly) — as have the past 7 incumbents of that role.

There is some truth in the adage about leopards and spots.

You can send me on as many organisational sills courses as you like, you are wasting your money and you aren’t doing anything for my motivation.  I’m far happier flinging ideas about, standing by a white board with some marker pens.

Fortunately for me, my current boss is wise enough to know this.  He has found an excellent project manager for me to work with.  He is as happy as Larry with his RAID logs, and I get to poke about the organisation. Collaboration is all important.

Who wants well-rounded?

Nobody would have asked Steve Jobs to work on his interpersonal skills or Winston Churchill to dial back a bit on his patriotism.

I will take spiky every time.  In my team…

  • I want somebody who is a hyper organised administrator who crosses every t and dots every i
  • I want somebody who is a super analyst who can wade through the statistics
  • I want somebody who is a great team player who keeps us all on track
  • I want somebody who is chock-full of ideas, sparking all the time
  • I want somebody who is a fabulous people person, great with suppliers and customers
  • I want somebody who…

The last thing I want is bunch of clones who are just above average at everything and excellent at precisely nothing.

Play to your strengths

How would it be if your appraisal form said…

Section 4: Core Strengths

Section 5: Opportunities to Play to Them

That way you will create some people who are really very good at something and, more importantly, raring to go.

Good management isn’t about developing people’s weaknesses.  It is about getting people to collaborate around their strengths.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

James Lawther
James Lawther is a middle-aged middle manager. To reach this highly elevated position he has worked for many organisations, from supermarkets to tax collectors and has had multiple roles from running a night shift to doing operational research. He gets upset by operations that don't work and mildly apoplectic about poor customer service.


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