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Staff reviews: Shock news - Half of you are below average!

Half of all children are below average.
Many parents, teachers and politicians around the world were offended by this simple factual statement. Few would have read political thinker Charles Murray’s critique of modern US schooling, but negative reactions to the soundbite version are typical of opinions on relative personal worth. I’d be prepared to make a small wager that, in just about any organisation, the average staff appraisal assessment is some synonym for “above average“. (Firms spoof themselves about "above average" pay too - read  my post on how).

Exacerbating our reluctance to use the term “average” is our belief that we can make fine judgements on relative value. Staff appraisal systems attempt to objectify what are mostly subjective opinions.  I've seen numerous satisfaction surveys and staff performance systems which ask for scores on a scale of 0 to 7 or even 0 to 10 (especially systems designed collaboratively with staff such as engineers, scientists and IT specialists). Imagine how complex this becomes when you add into the mix an assessment of not only past performance but also future potential to take on greater responsibility.

Yet, as Tim Harford (aka. The Undercover Economist) writes in the Financial Times,
The human brain simply may not be wired up to deal with lots of different levels of value. A series of psychological experiments, many dating back to the 1950s, shows that we cannot distinguish between more than about five degrees of … well, almost anything: sweetness in a solution; saltiness; the pitch of a note; brightness; the intensity of an electric shock; the length of a line; or the pungency of a smell. The details vary, but the level of consistency is surprising.
Good people management relies on frequent timely two-way feedback and discussion, not just an annual formal sit-down with the boss; but, unless you’re running a very small business, you need some form of staff assessment system to help you manage your talent base, people development programme and remuneration system. How can you capture complex information with a simple process, and achieve clarity of conclusions without “grade creep”?

Too many overly-specific questions draw you away from the essential conversation with your staffer. I favour simplicity:
  • What went well, why and how can we build on that?
  • What didn’t go well, why and what can we do to improve things?
  • How do we develop you in your current role?
  • How do we see your future in this organisation and how do we prepare that?
We (you and I, the participants in the conversation) are answering these questions in the context of your job role, any projects or targets you might have, how the company and the market is going, the company’s plans and modus operandi, etc..

Now we need to summarise your performance and potential.  How well did you perform?
  1. Significantly and consistently below expected level
  2. Below expectation in some aspects
  3. At expected level for someone with your experience, training, remuneration, grade, peer group and time in the role
  4. Above expectation in many aspects
  5. Outstanding; consistently and significantly above expected level
What is your future potential? As the investment ads say, “past performance is no guarantee of future results”. Having a good or bad year does not necessarily mean you are destined for stardom or failure career-wise.
  1. None; future outside the organisation
  2. Less demanding role
  3. Current or similar role
  4. Next level of responsibility and continuing progression to higher roles
  5. Next level of responsibility with rapid progression to significantly higher roles
I wouldn’t finalise the ratings (which are the manager’s calls) until after separate discussions with both the staffer and the manager’s manager. Of course, getting performance or potential ratings 1 or 2 should not have been a surprise, if we’ve been giving each other frequent feedback, and indeed action may have already commenced on what to do next.

I map all team members' Performance and Potential Ratings on a grid like this:

The point of doing this is to focus on the people needing your attention. Your aim is to build a team coloured Green and Blue. Sadly, the Reds and the Oranges tend to get most managers’ attention (especially the high maintenance category of high performance/outside potential: superstars constantly threatening to leave) while the Greens and Blues are neglected. It should be the other way round!

  • Reds: Get them out now!
  • Oranges: Transform them to red or green, quickly. Don’t muck about - fix fast or fire!
  • Blues: Do what you said you’d do and these people will drive themselves. You’ll see them a lot anyway because they are your stars.
  • Greens: This is where your attention should be. They’ll respond to your increased time and focus on their ongoing development, they’ll be quietly glad you sorted out the people who held the team back, and some of them will turn into Blues.

There’s a useful online talent management tool called Sonar6, which does a nice job of capturing all this and more, eg. reviews and action plans, remuneration mapping, succession planning, etc.

First posted March 9th/10th/11th, 2009