It was with a bemused smile that I read Andrew McIlvaine's article, "There's Got to Be a Better Way" (July/August cover story), lamenting the status of performance management. Six decades ago, when I took my first job in "personnel," managers were saying there's got to be better way to do the performance appraisal, their version of performance management. They were no more or less happy with the approaches used then.
I have been an HR consultant for the past 45 years and was a "personnel" manager for 10 years prior to that. There is nothing related to the profession so controversial or unsettling than the chore of trying to evaluate the performance and productivity of workers. I have worked with hundreds of organizations and thousands of managers in just about every field of endeavor without coming across any appraisal system that has fully satisfied all parties. Creating a system that hits the jackpot is tantamount to finding the Holy Grail. I can project ahead another six decades and would guess that an author of that day will be writing about the difficulty in making the current work appraisal fad of that age work.
I remember buying, in 1956, a many-paged reference book from the American Management Association containing a humongous collection of performance-appraisal forms. It provided the definitive, state-of-the-art answers to the problem of evaluating employee performance. It was a waste of 10 bucks (a major sum in that day). I soon learned forms were not the solution and turned my attention to the processes in which forms were just records. At that early date, I learned the facts of managerial life.
No matter what it's called or how well planned, the fact is that managers at all levels do not like criticizing subordinates. They shy away from playing God. Managers at all levels also do not know the work of their employees as well as they think and the halo effect continues to be alive and well. Of course, there are some systems that are better than others and there are managers who carry out the appraisal process well; but, by and large, HR specialists are still seeking that elusive perfect system.
During my years of working with managers, I have found that the most successful approaches have called for employees -- at all levels -- to determine their own job criteria, followed by self-appraisal that forces them to justify, with specifics, their self-ratings. This approach doesn't rely on forms or formats and it is the basis of McIlvaine's mantra: Keep it simple. My conclusion is that any system that gets employee and boss to talk about performance is as good as any other. But, no matter what approach is used, we'll always be seeking the performance Holy Grail.
Lawrence C. Bassett,
Longtime Management Consultant and
President of The Bassett Consulting Group