Your performance management system ‘meets expectations’

By Jay Cone

To: Management

From: A concerned employee

Subject: Performance Management

Well, it’s that time of year again. The leaves are changing color, the kids are back in school in their new shoes, and I’m preparing to meet with my boss to have a year’s worth of behavior summed up in a two-or three-word euphemism that will determine my future income and career potential. Yep, it’s performance appraisal season.

If I’ve had a successful year, the boss will give me a rating of “meets expectations.” A rating, I’m told, that should lift my spirits; after all, expectations around here are quite high, and meeting said “high expectations” is no small accomplishment. Then why does it not feel very good? Perhaps we should rename the rating: “Enthusiastically Meets Expectations!” or perhaps “Meets Expectations Unlike They’ve Ever Been Met Before!” Otherwise, call me crazy, but many employees might be tempted to look at “meets expectations” as a mediocre evaluation.

With all due respect, dear management, here’s the deal. This system called “performance management” doesn’t do anything to help performance and is pretty darn unmanageable. I’ve reached a stage in my life where I’d prefer to receive feedback about what I do rather than be graded on a curve. This time of year, we all seem to be focusing more attention on working the system than doing the work the system was designed to measure.

I think it’s high time to evaluate the system that is used to evaluate us. How, I wonder, would the performance appraisal system itself hold up under the scrutiny it imposes on the rest of us?

Let’s start with performance management’s job description. Successful performance management systems will:

  • Ensure equity—We want to make sure that people around here get what they deserve.
  • Improve performance—We want to motivate people to do better.
  • Provide actionable data—We want people to know where they stand so they can take responsibility for their own careers, and we want to identify our future leaders as well as our future ex-employees.
  • Perform other duties as assigned—Like our own job descriptions, it helps to have an extra category to cover responsibilities we haven’t thought of yet.

If we accept the above goals as benchmark attributes of the performance management system, it should be relatively simple to rate how well the system delivers.

Let’s begin with a look at how well our performance management system ensures equity. Raise your hand if you feel that each of us is compensated commensurate with our value and contribution.



Noting no hands in the air, may I point out that no system—even ones that look fair on paper—can meet our fickle and diverse perceptions of equity? I myself vacillate between feeling appreciative and resentful—based on a variety of factors having nothing to do with our splendid organization. Kluging together provisos, conditions, and exceptions will never extend the roof far enough so that no one feels left out. In fact, it’s the exceptions that simultaneously create a feeling of equity for some, while contributing to accusations of injustice from others. On the bright side, there’s something equitable about everyone suffering through the same system, filling out the same forms, and grumbling the same grumbles this time of year. So for the score on “Ensuring Equity,” how about a generous “Meets Expectations?” May as well start the review off on a positive note.

Surely we can count on the system to improve performance. After all, one reason that we suffer through this period of reminiscing and goal-setting is to help us get better at our work.




The theory behind the system works like this.

  1. First, we define ideal behaviors for every job.
  2. Second, we compare everyone against the ideal, in a sort of Olympic-judging panel sort of way.

For example, as a level eight financial analyst, here’s what you should be able to do and here’s how well you should be able to do it. Under scrutiny, I’m afraid, the analogy breaks down. Olympic judges, unlike my boss, don’t have to work with the people they’re scoring after the performance. Also, Olympic judges base their ratings on an agreed upon standard; while there’s one right way to perform a triple Sal chow or a round-off back handspring, there are many ways to manage a project or satisfy a customer. Furthermore, how the athlete treats his or her colleagues doesn’t enter into his score. The choice of process, approach, or dress code won’t impact the athlete’s score either. An Olympic diver who comes late to the meeting about local aquatic venue procedures doesn’t have to worry about the impact on his or her score.

Despite the heroic effort of our Human Resources department and the wisdom of the various consulting firms we’ve hired, we’ll never achieve the clarity of assessment we yearn for. We simply can’t separate how we feel about each other and how we treat each other from how we assess each other’s performance. Personally, I consider this bit of humanity good news. In the end, most of us spend more time disputing the veracity of the feedback than ferreting out the kernel of useful perspective.

Don’t get me wrong, dear management, I want feedback from my boss. I’m eager to hear how my actions add or diminish value. It’s just that the label, the rating, or the score doesn’t give me any useful information; it only focuses my attention on whether or not I agree with the assessment. So, when it comes to “Improving Performance,” I give our performance management system a resounding: “Needs Improvement.”

3. Lastly, we want our performance management systems to provide actionable data about the people in our organization.

Interestingly enough, though I may benefit from this feature, it’s also the most potentially damaging aspect. How well does our performance management system provide you, the folks who control whether or not I continue in your employ, the information you need to decide my fate? It’s a hard question to answer because I don’t have visibility into the conversations going on about what’s next for me. I don’t mean to impugn anyone’s motives, but I can’t help thinking that the last presentation I made to you matters a whole lot more than my grade—oops, I mean “rating on my performance appraisal.”

I’m a little stuck here. What would you do if you had to assess a category of my performance, but you lacked any real data? I suppose it’s best not to draw attention to the fact that I can’t objectively rate how well our performance management system is doing its job with respect to “Providing Actionable Data.” Let’s check the “Meets Expectations” box on this one.

At this juncture, I can guess what you’re thinking: “Don’t bring us problems without solutions.” Fair enough. Here’s one way to think about it. We would never knowingly spend time, money, and organizational attention on a process that doesn’t add value. One simple way to determine whether a process adds value is to eliminate it completely and see who complains. If the only group to miss our performance management system are the lawyers who crave documentation, may I humbly suggest that we’re investing a lot of energy on a system with dubious value? It seems to me that disgruntled employees and their lawyers haven’t exactly been deterred by the riveting and comprehensive histories of performance we keep on file. In fact, I’m of the opinion that the system itself creates more perceptions of inequity than it eliminates.

How then do we ensure equity, improve performance, and get actionable data on how our employees are doing? How about we teach managers and employees to talk to one another with candor and empathy? After all, if employees don’t have to embellish their contributions in order to outrank their colleagues and appraisers don’t have to fret over delivering a disappointing rating, we’ll have plenty of time to talk to each other.

Are you a Saybrook University alumna or faculty member who is interested in submitting a blog post for potential publication on UNBOUND? You may do so by submitting your finished piece or pitch on the right-hand side panel of UNBOUND pages.