By SAMUEL A. CULBERT
Published in the New York Times on March 1, 2011
In the raging battle over union rights in Wisconsin, those seeking to curtail collective bargaining for state employees have advanced an argument that seems hard to resist: It will make it easier to reward those workers who perform the best. What could be fairer than that?
If only that were true. As anybody who has ever worked in any institution — private or public — knows, one of the primary ways employee effectiveness is judged is the performance review. And nothing could be less fair than that.
In my years studying such reviews, I’ve learned that they are subjective evaluations that measure how “comfortable” a boss is with an employee, not how much an employee contributes to overall results. They are an intimidating tool that makes employees too scared to speak their minds, lest their criticism come back to haunt them in their annual evaluations. They almost guarantee that the owners — whether they be taxpayers or shareholders — will get less bang for their buck.
In other words, there may be lots of reasons to restrict collective bargaining by state workers, but the idea that it will lead to a fairer system of rewarding employees, to the benefit of taxpayers, should not automatically be counted as one of them. Performance reviews corrupt the system by getting employees to focus on pleasing the boss, rather than on achieving desired results. And they make it difficult, if not impossible, for workers to speak truth to power. I’ve examined scores of empirical studies since the early 1980s and have not found convincing evidence that performance reviews are fair, accurate or consistent across managers, or that they improve organizational effectiveness.
Think about it. Performance reviews are held up as objective assessments by the boss, with the assumption that the boss has all the answers.
Now, maybe your boss is all-knowing. But I’ve never seen one that was. In a self-interested world, where imperfect people are judging other imperfect people, anybody reviewing somebody else’s performance — whether as an actor, a writer, a spouse, a friend or a worker — is subjective. It’s why when employees switch bosses, more often than not their evaluation changes as well.
Under such a system, in which one’s livelihood can be destroyed by a self-serving boss trying to meet a budget or please the higher-ups, what employee would ever speak his mind? What employee would ever say that the boss is wrong, and offer an idea on how something might get done better?
Only an employee looking for trouble.
Is there a way out? I believe there is, and it works for both government and business. It’s something I call the performance preview. Instead of top-down reviews, both boss and subordinate are held responsible for setting goals and achieving results. No longer will only the subordinate be held accountable for the often arbitrary metrics that the boss creates. Instead, bosses are taught how to truly manage, and learn that it’s in their interest to listen to their subordinates to get the results the taxpayer is counting on.
Instead of the bosses merely handing out A’s and C’s, they work to make sure everyone can earn an A. And the word goes out: “No more after-the-fact disappointments. Tell me your problems as they happen; we’re in it together and it’s my job to ensure results.”
In fact, the police department in Madison, Wis., has used such a program since the late 1980s with considerable effectiveness. It replaced traditional performance evaluations with a system that emphasized goal-setting and continuous improvement. It encouraged supervisors to act as coaches and mentors, and officers (who are unionized) to offer feedback on their superiors.
Employees are in fact eager for such collaboration. In Wisconsin, members of public-sector unions have been willing to give in on money (contributing more to their health care and pensions) but unwilling to give up their voice (the right to bargain collectively on work rules, not just wages). And public employees have a special relationship with the systems they serve. They are also taxpayers.
Unions in Wisconsin are justified in worrying that limiting collective bargaining would lead to capricious firing or demotions, whether for age, personality, salary or any other criterion you can think of. There doesn’t have to be anything malicious about it (although there might be). It’s the inevitable result of giving the boss the subjective power to define and judge another’s performance.
Performance reviews aren’t the only ways to measure effectiveness, to be sure. Workers whose output is tangible and measurable — how much garbage is picked up, how many streets are cleared of snow — are increasingly evaluated according to numerical goals. I’d argue these measurements are similarly flawed. Workers are almost always better at coming up with metrics that lead to systemwide gains than bosses alone are. The key to systemwide success (as opposed to individual success) is still employees working together under the leadership of good managers.
Of course, not every worker, public or private, will seize the opportunity to collaborate with managers and figure out ways to improve overall results. If they don’t, there should be ways to get rid of them.
But understand that the performance review makes it nearly impossible to have the kind of trusting relationships in the workplace that make improvement possible. With previews, at least, workers have the opportunity to reverse course and say how they can be their best. Taxpayers can’t ask for more than that.
Kevin Schwarm’s Comments:
I completely agree with the author’s characterizing performance evaluations as subjective evaluations. From my experience in corporate America for 20 years, performance reviews are not always an effective way to judge someone’s performance. Do you have an in? Subjective evaluation includes speaking the same “lingo” or being able to hang out with your manager and have a lot in common. It may be a generational or gender thing too. In many cases, rapport is a better indicator on how well someone will do and often less about how well the employee contributes to overall results.
The author claims most performance reviews corrupt the system as the employees, in an effort to get a good review many employees will help out the boss wherever possible and this may not always be aligned to the bottom line or the company’s mission. How common is it for your bosses’ boss to ask you about how your boss is doing? Do they look for feedback from you? Even if they did, could you trust them that your insight will not be held against you if it’s not what they’re looking for or not done in the proper tone?
From my experience, the boss is in the position of power and you, as an employee, have very little say in the matter. In the corporation, for example, you need to trust the boss as the balance of this power is entirely on the side of the corporation or company. Again, performance reviews are conveyed to be an objective assessment about one’s performance even though from my experience and according to this author, we know there’s so much subjectively and opinion that flows or creeps into the process.
It’s doubtful any boss is all-knowing – especially consider this comment from a management expert who has examined empirical studies for the last 30 years or so. From my experience in corporate America, I have not seen this occur. In fact, I’m not sure how common it is for your manager to admit when they made a mistake. Sharing some of the struggles may improve the candor of the relationship. Could having a more honest and healthy dialogue between managers and subordinates help the relationship and improve the bottom line?
You may be encouraged to speak your mind and let management know what you’re thinking but often this will come back to bite you. Even if this is done constructively, often, you’re perceived to not have the answers because you’re not in the position of authority. In other words, a manager may say that they know or have the answers because they were given the authority. Do managers have the answers because they’re in a position of authority or because of their education and experience?
The author suggests eliminating the current review program and establish a more effective one called performance preview instead of performance review. It would no longer top-down or a system where the employee will be accountable for arbitrary metrics. The manager and subordinate would be responsible for goals and results. This new preview process would teach managers how to truly manage and listen and work with their subordinates on goals and results.
As reported in the news recently, members of public unions in Wisconsin are willing to contribute more money toward health care and pensions but don’t want to give up their right to collectively bargain. They don’t want managers having too much power to subjectively evaluate their performance. They want to continue to have a voice in this matter where their managers manage and listen and collaborate to help reach goals and results together.
The author believes the performance review makes it nearly impossible to have the kind of trusting relationships in the workplace that make improvement possible. With previews, at least, workers have the opportunity to reverse course and say how they can be their best. This new evaluation system could provide more value to taxpayers in the end.
Some employees who “get along” with their managers “always say the right thing” feel the review process is less subjective and may not need to be changed. Others, who may be more honest or don’t have that rapport but want to make changes for the better find it’s a very challenging process indeed. They feel it’s a struggle advocating on behalf of their clients or trying to push through an idea.