Performance in the workplace is tough to assess. Too often, bosses hold onto vague judgements about how “hard working” or “enthusiastic” an employee is, or how good they are at “leadership”.
In this warped world of subjective judgement, anecdotes make the evidence. Start scraping away at strongly held beliefs that bosses have about staff and often their reasons for thinking about people in a certain way is tenuous: “the person is busily beavering away when I pass their desk in the office” is somehow evidence of their conscientiousness. “They were very quiet during the last couple of team meetings” is incontrovertible proof that they lack energy. Perhaps we do this out of habit. After all, when we meet new people in a social environment our instincts and early interactions with them help us make a decision about the kind of person they are.
Performance assessments in the workplace should be strictly evidence-based. This throws up several challenges. What aspects of performance are measurable? How can they be measured? What are the difficulties in measuring these things? And how can these pitfalls be avoided? Here are four fundamental difficulties when it comes to measuring performance.
Difficulty 1: Finding things to measure
Performance assessments should include factors that can be assessed quantitatively. This could include productivity increases, revenue or units produced or sold. However, the emphasis on easy-to-measure factors shouldn’t be taken too far. It’s easy to measure attendance but if a team’s absentee rate is generally OK then one could question how useful it is to spend valuable time measuring this.
Difficulty 2: Trying to measure things that are difficult to measure
Quality is very difficult to assess because it is easy to slip into subjectivity. However, it is possible to get around this pitfall by framing quality in quantitative terms. For example, you could calculate what percentage of work done has to be redone, or what percentage of work has a successful outcome. In sales, what percentage of leads does a salesman successfully convert into closed deals?
It is true that some factors, like creativity, are very hard to measure. The most common response is to try and measure creativity in terms of output. However, some scholars have tried to also assess the process of creativity, for example, by employing Williams’ Taxonomy of creative thinking skills.
Difficulty 3: Using the ratings scale
Ratings scales, which for example assess a performance factor on a scale of 1 to 5, have a number of advantages. They are standardised, structured and easy to use. However, they have many shortcomings. Firstly, if the assessor is not subjective, neither is the assessment. Appraisers that are non-confrontational or busy can end up awarding too many middle of the road ratings. Harsh appraisers can award too many ratings at the lower end of the scale, and overly generous appraisers can end up doing the opposite. The ratings scale then becomes little more than a manifestation of the assessor’s prejudices in numbers. Secondly, being forced to use something as rigid as a ratings scale can reinforce the “halo” and “horns” effect, with assessors marking employees they see as “good” highly and being unfairly harsh with employees they think of as “slackers”.
Difficulty 4: Making Performance assessment too one-way
It’s natural to think of performance assessment as a top-down thing. However, self-assessment should be an important part of the endeavour. After all, how a person thinks about their performance is intrinsically linked to how they perform. There is no point completing a 100% accurate performance appraisal and then shoving it under the subject’s nose, expecting them to take it in. Bring them into the conversation, incorporate their own insights into the final product, and the employee is much more likely to pay heed to what it actually says.
Peer assessment can be valuable too – often peers have more interaction with the subject than the assessor and can offer useful insights into behaviour patterns.
Mens sana in corpore sano: “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. We’ve learned to think about the workplace in similar terms: a happy, efficient worker is the key to an organisation that is similarly sound. Little wonder then that so many companies now prioritise employee engagement as a fundamental factor influencing how the firm performs.
Employee engagement is all about making sure that the people that work for a company are aligned with the organisation’s ethos and aims. And that they are continuously motivated to pursue these goals. All the time, employees should feel that they are improving their own skills, performance and sense of self. Most employees are not actually “engaged”. A Gallup State of the Global Workplace report found that just 13% of employees across the world are engaged at work.
The flaw in measuring employee engagement once a year and then forgetting about it for another 12 months should be immediately clear. An annual survey only delivers a snapshot of the employee’s performance and satisfaction levels in the workplace. It also doesn’t push you to follow up on the person and make sure that improvements and targets suggested in the yearly meeting are actually being carried out. There is nothing more tedious than an engagement meeting that is just a repeat of the conversation you had with the person the year before. Or an engagement survey which ultimately has the subject ticking the same boxes and writing the same comments that they did 12 months previously.
When VoloMetrix CEO Ryan Fuller used analytics to look into the attrition levels of one firm, he found that the engagement of employees steadily dropped over a 52 week period up until the time they finally decided to quit. This example powerfully makes the case for continuous engagement measurement; otherwise, by the time you realise that an employee is unengaged, it could be too late.
So, what are some of the best ways to measure engagement continuously? Carrying out shorter variations of the annual engagement survey several times throughout the year is a popular option. Some companies ask their employees to complete short weekly or even daily rapid pulse surveys.
The methods for tracking the general engagement “mood” of a company in real-time continue to develop. For example, Toyota has famously pioneered the Japanese NikoNiko calendar. Each day all the team members insert a happy face, neutral face or sad face under their name on the calendar, to signify their mood.
Quizzes, surveys or calendars that rely on the input of the subjects themselves have limitations, however. Although they provide a good insight into how engaged employees think they are, the extent to which they are useful at revealing how engaged employees actually are is questionable.
Fortunately, analytics has the potential to resolve this problem. In the era of big data, we can collect and process an unprecedented range of new data. Crucially, these not only grant new insight into engagement levels, but can also be measured continuously over time. They include the willingness of an employee to carry out discretionary extra work outside of office hours to get larger tasks done; their attendance at informal, optional meetings; and their connections with colleagues outside of their immediate team.
In an article for Forbes, HR expert Josh Bersin touches on the future direction of this field. He describes how he recently visited a firm “who build their own internal ’employee sensing’ system that shows how well employees like each other, their level of trust, and who they collaborate with in a real-time basis.” What should we take away from this cutting edge example? The future of measuring engagement will be a combination of frequent surveys and big data. It will also become ever more sophisticated as time goes on.
Performance management is a task dreaded by many and performed well by few. The good news is that there are a selection of very common pitfalls. If you identify these and conscientiously avoid them, then you are already ahead of the game. Here are three common errors and how to avoid them:
Mistake 1: Seeing performance management as an annual event rather than an ongoing process.
Do you know where the tradition of annual appraisement comes from? They are a hangover from the era of big, top down corporations and ruthless yearly meetings that could end your career. (http://www.forbes.com/sites/joshbersin/2013/05/06/time-to-scrap-performance-appraisals/) Bosses would tell employees whether they had met their targets, hand out bonuses to top performers, and fire the weakest links. It’s worth pointing this out if only to demonstrate the sheer ridiculousness of the idea that one meeting a year is a good way to do staff appraisals. Nonetheless, many of us continue to make this fundamental error.
HR Daily Advisor 2014 Performance Management Survey found that over 40% of respondents were not following up with employees after their assessment. Performance management is a continuous process, and should be a constant priority. Ask yourself this: can your company afford to have staff making the same mistake over and over for a whole year- until their annual appraisal meeting comes around?
Solutions: make performance management a continuous process, and hold several informal assessment meetings with employees throughout the year. These should still be structured conversations and touch on the same areas as an annual assessment, although in less depth. You can also try and keep things fresh and relevant by focusing on recent performance and progress in the context of current projects. Some HR experts recommend that bosses keep a performance diary on their staff and staff keep their own performance diary about themselves. This way, there are no time gaps in the performance process, and it’s more difficult for achievements or failures to slip the net.
Mistake 2: The assessment process is too one-way
It’s not very pleasant for an employee to be ushered into a room and have their boss go through a laundry list of their ostensible faults. If getting better out of them is the aim then this approach is likely to backfire. People find it difficult to hear criticism. A study by PsychTests found that two thirds of people dwell on their failures, 41% have argued with someone because they felt unfairly criticised, and 34% feel less motivated to work after they have been criticised. Treat criticism like a minefield and tread with care.
Solutions: according to the American Management Association, a 360 degree system that includes peer reviews and self reviews is best. Inviting employees to read out their self review first can be a good way to start the meeting, so that they won’t be on the defensive as soon as the meeting begins.
Mistake 3: The feedback is too vague and not evidence based
Firstly, performance assessment should be based on actual outcomes – tangible achievements and failures – rather than character traits. Too often, bosses obsess over whether an individual is enthusiastic or hardworking enough, or has strong enough leadership or teamwork skills. The problem is these concepts are subjective, and impossible to assess fairly unless you are literally observing the subjects all of the time. When managers tend to rate performance objectives on one part of the scale, and don’t base their ratings on proper data, this can be an indication that they are being too harsh, too soft or too indecisive when assessing individuals. This can ultimately completely distort the performance assessment too.
Solutions: firstly, focus on whether the employee achieved concrete goals. Did they increase productivity by X%? Meet their target of bringing in £X worth of extra sales? Of course, this is much harder to do if you haven’t already been having an ongoing discussion about targets. This ties perfectly into mistake 1 – you have to see performance management as a continuous process.
Secondly, never stop questioning whether your approach to scoring is fair and balanced. Know the signs that something has probably gone wrong. The Western Washington University’s performance manual suggests that if a manager consistently rates individuals in the middle of the rating scale, the assessment is probably not accurate. Similarly, if more than 20% of your ratings are at the higher part of the scale, it is possible that you are being too generous with your scoring. If more than 20% are at the bottom end you may be being too harsh.
In conclusion, performance management is tricky. Approach this field with care and apply the three C’s: show Continuity, Collaborate with your employees and don’t stop Criticising your objectivity.