Performance Appraisal: Pathway to Mistrust

Robert Galford’s HBR Blog Network article, “How to keep your cool during a performance review” suggest there is a widespread abhorrence and likely fear of the annual performance review.  To make what is often a not-so-good experience better Robert offers four tactics: relax; prepare yourself to hear one or more unexpected ‘somethings’; if you don’t agree with the feedback, don’t launch into a defense right away; and when it is over, say thank you, reflect on the overall message and don’t file it and forget it.   While these are no doubt helpful toward making lemonade out of a lemon, they don’t mitigate the overall effect of the annual performance appraisal process.


Overall what does the annual performance appraisal do? It certainly doesn’t create and build trust! What it does is enact fear and creates mistrust. How could trust possibly be created through a process wherein people are judged, let alone for outcomes over which they haven’t full control?  How could trust be created by a process where people are given credit or blame for effects over which they know (at some level) they have little influence?


Interactions Not Actions

Organizations are social systems, human activity systems that function through relationships—cooperative and collaborative relationships—among people. As explained in a previous post, performance is an emergent property of a system; it is a function of the interaction of the many constituent components of the system as well as the components themselves.  Thus in an interdependent world the interaction among members either increases or diminishes the performance.


Yet some might argue that if “is a team player” (or something similar) is among the criteria in the appraisal then this would promote cooperation and teamwork.  We mustn’t forget that an individual’s performance can’t be known because it is the result of the interaction of many factors—the system itself, the materials provided, the management provided, the equipment provided etc. Adding a measure such as ‘is a team player’ doesn’t make the unknowable known and it doesn’t enable control of what is desired.  A reasonable person would agree that because organizations are human activity systems that depend on cooperation and collaboration among its members, performance is neither summative nor reductive—it is emergent.  Thus it is not the criteria of appraisal that affords synergy it is the organization’s design and system of management.


An organization’s performance is not the linear sum of each person’s performance. That is to say, performance of the organization emerges from the interaction of many factors—ideally realizing a degree of synergy—among people.  Hence for an organization to function effectively and efficiently trust is essential. In light of this, to advocate for the annual review of employees’ performance that leverages fear and creates mistrust is simply wrongheaded, if not foolish. If organizational performance depends on interactions (i.e. relationships), why then do we put so much attention on measuring individual action?


In far too many organizations people are managed as if independent of each other and everything else.  In far too many organizations control of others is sought through metrics coupled to the assumption that each is seeking to gain as much as he/she can.  In far too many organizations fear is the go-to-lever for management.  Why else would carrot-and-stick methods be so popular?  When one’s ranking in the annual review depends on how one compares to others, then helping others is incompatible with one getting ahead and realizing a higher ranking.


Rather than learning and improvement, what the annual performance appraisal promotes are efforts to do whatever you can to look good. The impact of one’s actions on others is of little concern since ‘me’ looking good is ‘my’ primary concern—that’s what’s measured. Results matter and what I do for ‘me’ to get those results is what matters—in the end it’s about ‘me’ winning.  The effect is the relationships among people are anything but helping and productive. Further what’s beneficial to the wholesomeness of the system is secondary at best. While it may appear those in management are controlling things through metrics, what they are really getting is mistrust dressed up in compliance.  And compliance is not an antecedent of creativity, so why promote it!


Moreover the annual performance appraisal fosters the reinforcing attitude that you are on your own, which is an easy attitude to embrace since the system of economics—the economic context within which we conduct business—advances a self-interest focus as well.


Meaning Not Ends

Furthermore the relationship people have with their work is central to how they perform their work. If the work is seen merely as a means to money then the work one does has no meaning apart from what one materially gains from the activity. Therefore work is stripped of inherent meaning since it is just a means to material gain.  Also when the value of work equates to the amount of material gain it brings or to an abstract measure—when ends supplant means—the quality of people’s work, and that of the organization, diminishes.


To manage an organization as if everything is linear and summative is synonymous to managing to make the organization dysfunctional and its performance suboptimal.  Obviously creating an environment wherein self-interested behavior is encouraged—wherein either/or thinking reigns supreme and both reductionism and individualism are embraced—is antithetical to realizing a quality producing wholesome system.  Managing in a way that turns interaction into transaction reflects a superficial understanding of what it means to lead.


So why is it so widely practiced? Where is it proven that superficiality builds trust, the essential context for productive relationships?  Why does management continue with practices that diminish the likelihood of realizing meaningful work and synergy among people? Why does management continue with a practice that reduces risk taking, limits learning and sub-optimizes organizational performance? Is it possible that those in authority fear that without this force-based tool they would lose (perception of) control and not be able to get anyone to do as they wish?


We are left only to wonder, have those in management the courage for leadership?



6 thoughts on “Performance Appraisal: Pathway to Mistrust

  1. Salaam,
    Ban performance appraisals forever!. They don’t work. No one likes them, understands them or does them well. I have never seen anyone emerge from a performance appraisal meeting with a smile on their face, nor the manager for that matter.

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