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Problems with Annual Evaluations

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Invasion of the Annual Reviews” by Phyllis Korkki in The New York Times, 24 November 2013;
“I do not know many people who look forward to performance evaluations—on the giving or the receiving side,” says Phyllis Korkki in this column in the business section of The New York Times. Here are several reasons behind the dread:
• Evaluating a star performer in a previous managerial job, Ms. Korkki felt obligated to note at least one area for improvement. “I saw him bristle as I mentioned his flaw,” she says, “and I wondered if that one criticism overshadowed all the praise.”
• Managers are often told there should be no surprises when poor performers get their end-of-year reviews. But it is understandable for bosses to procrastinate and shy away from bringing up bad news. As a result, problems tend to simmer below the surface till they explode at evaluation time.
• For many workers, performance evaluation is “this weird form you fill out every year that has nothing to do with everyday life,” says Stanford professor Robert Sutton. “If performance evaluations were a drug, they would not receive F.D.A. approval [because] they have so many side effects, and so often they fail.”
• Ranking employees can have negative effects, says Ms. Korkki. The most extreme application of this approach was Jack Welch’s “rank and yank” policy when he was CEO at General Electric: the top 20 percent of employees received bonuses, the middle 70 percent were coached on ways they could improve, and the bottom 10 percent were fired. Opponents of this approach say it penalizes managers who are successful at getting all employees to perform well—they still have to fire the bottom 10 percent and many deserving high-performers are not rewarded. Ranking also undermines collaboration—in fact, it can even lead employees to sabotage one another to score higher in the ranking. At Microsoft, employees complained for years about how performance ranking discouraged teamwork, and the company recently discontinued the policy.
• On the other hand, a super-egalitarian approach to evaluation can also have negative effects. “Few things are as demotivating to a workforce as seeing poor performance tolerated and exceptional performance ignored,” says Jon Picoult, head of a Connecticut consulting company.
A better approach, says Dr. Sutton, is to provide continuous feedback and save formal evaluations for those who are not performing well—and those being eyed for promotion. Managers at Adobe have adopted this approach, conducting a series of medium-stakes check-in conversations during the year in which subordinates get feedback on their work.
Summary reprinted from Marshall Memo 514, 9 December 2013.

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