Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Ditch Performance Reviews?

Samuel A. Culbert once had a boss he didn't like. And I mean, really, really didn't like.

That's what I concluded after reading Professor Culbert's long polemic against employee performance reviews, in Monday's Wall Street Journal. Although presented as objective analysis by a respected management consultant, author and professor at the Anderson School of Management at UCLA, the personal animus that pervades his essay is hard to ignore. I could almost see the author's brows furrow and his lips curl in disgust each time he placed the word, "boss" in the text.

Performance reviews never got much respect from the ivory-tower crowd. Their unease is rooted in doubts that most managers are capable of giving honest, constructive feedback to workers they supervise. That's also the gist of Culbert's seven-point, 2,500-word treatise in the Journal.

The real "primary purpose" of performance reviews, he writes, is "intimidation aimed at preserving the boss's authority and power advantage." He goes on to say:

Claiming an evaluation can be "objective" is preposterous, as if any assessment is independent of that evaluator's motives in the moment. Missing are answers to questions like, "As seen by whom?" and "Spun for what?" Implying that an evaluation is objective disregards what everyone knows: Where you stand determines what you see.

According to Culbert, everything about the typical review process is dishonest. The ostensible connection with annual salary reviews is a "cover story" to conceal how pay is really determined. Bosses are motivated not by desire to help their teams be more productive, but by "personal preferences, emotional biases, personal agendas and situational motives." Company forms that guide the review process are "one-size-fits-all" checklists with little or no relevance to the employee or the job.

No doubt, these observations are valid for some supervisors, or even some whole companies. But does the above description even come close to the mark for the majority of employers? Based on my experience, the answer is clearly no. Reading his piece, I get the feeling he is focusing on the worst-case scenario for managerial behavior, and treating it as the norm.

Beyond any one person's workplace experience, we can also consult long-term economic performance for a global verdict as to just how effective managers have been over the years, in their decisions to reward or promote subordinates.

For decades, U.S. economic activity has been dominated by institutions governed by just the sort of hierarchical, boss-centric decision-making structures that Culbert so detests. If "bosses" were as consistently dumb, petty, biased and counterproductive as his article suggests, then how is it that the cumulative result of their decisions is an economy that's enjoyed steadily rising productivity and a standard of living that's the envy of the world? It seems to me that the evidence of our senses indicates that over the post-World War II period, those in the executive suites must have chosen at least a few competent managers to delegate authority to.

Get Rid of the Performance Review! [Wall Street Journal]


Anonymous said...

More negative then Culbet. I think you got abit too "hung-up" on some language and missed the message. Being a practioner in the "real" world I found this to be on the money and a course of action many companies are pursuing. Reviews do not work and end up being a CYA document. It is true that there are right and wrong ways of conducting this, but in general the majority are the "wrong" way and therefore lose there value.

Jon Jacobs said...

For concrete tips on what an employee can do to make the process work, see "Profiting From Performance Reviews," on JobsintheMoney: http://www.jobsinthemoney.com/news.php?articleID=713