judging performance

My daughter was a little dismayed and disappointed to discover that I’m not being evaluated by judges when I speak at conferences. It’s funny to think about, but how would she know different? She knows the emphasis and worry I put on doing great presentations and given the popularity of contest shows like America’s Got Talent and Last Comic Standing it’s probably very natural to assume I’d be in front of HR’s versions of Howard Stern or Rosanne. It would certainly change the flavor of conferences if the presenters got immediate, constructive feedback from a panel of judges.

It is fashionable right now to declare the demise of the performance appraisal. The logic seems to be a combination of: 1) we need feedback more than once a year; 2) many managers are terrible at it; 3) people don’t like being evaluated. But, killing off the appraisal because we need more feedback is sort of like ending Christmas because we believe people should be nice to each other more than just during the holiday season. I fail to see how doing less solves the problem of needing more. And, regardless of format or frequency, providing feedback is a core function of the manager’s job so it’s probably time to just go ahead and get good at it. Likewise, when we’re getting paid to do work it’s hardly unreasonable that we’re expected to do it correctly (and maybe even improve) so receiving feedback is just part of being employed.

Can we do performance appraisals (lots) better. Absolutely! Can we completely eliminate them? I’m not yet convinced. Can we completely overhaul the entire format? Probably need to.

My daughter’s confusion got me thinking. What if performance appraisals were done by a panel of judges? Seems to fit in with the American reality TV ethos.  Of course, few jobs could be accurately judged by a group of impartial outsiders and almost no one would want to hear their performance appraisal in front of the entire company. So, as amusing as it is to consider, that’s probably out.

Yet, feedback from several perspectives is useful. So perhaps it’s a manager and two or three peers. Co-workers generally know the true performance far better than the manager, especially if we evaluate interpersonal/team skills. It should be pretty easy for performance management software to randomly assign appraisals to peers and keep the feedback anonymous. Need to do appraisals more than once a year? Great, how’s quarterly, monthly, weekly?

The technology is there. Back in May, Workforce reported that companies such as Facebook and Hewlett-Packard are essentially crowdsourcing performance data on a continual basis. I suppose it’s similar to how companies are continuously gathering customer feedback. (It also allows companies to eliminate HR as a gatekeeper to performance management – I’ll let you decide if that’s good or bad.)

But technology can’t do what we need most. To have direct, human, ongoing discussions with people about what they’re doing well and what they need to do better. The interesting thing about the TV shows with panels of judges is watching how much the surviving performers improve over the course of the show by using the feedback they receive week after week. Beyond all the drama, cut-to-commercial, spectacle, there is solid, honest here’s-what-you-did-well-and-here’s-how-you-can-do-better feedback. We all need that.

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