Thursday, 21 January 2010

Who are we to be appraised?

Picking up on yesterday’s post, if we translate that scenario into what goes on inside most organisations, from time to time an individual’s performance is appraised, and almost always in isolation. But performance for the organisation results from what happens in the relationship between people. Yet that space is left outside the appraisal room, outside the interview discussion.

It gets worse. Appraisal assumes that there is a reality to be identified. And it is the appraiser’s job to decide that reality, often for pay purposes. But there can only ever be perceptions of reality, and there will be many of them. We have multiple perceptions of selves by those with whom we interact, including the appraisee’s own self-perception. What I am in the eyes of one person will differ from what I am in the eyes of another. I personally went from being a star and receiving a big bonus with one boss to being a dunce with a much reduced bonus with the next. My performance (as I saw it) hadn’t changed. In terms of yesterday’s post, Blanchflower is a visionary to some, and a nuisance to others.

If performance happens in the spaces, then the same person’s interaction at work with those in other departments may be perceived quite differently. The person being talked about may be a joy to deal with as far as one colleague may be concerned, and a ‘pain in the ….’ to another. The individual may accordingly choose to spend time with those who find the experience a joy, and shun contact with the others. Yet that (im)balance in how time is spent may not be what the organisation needs.

As with Blanchflower’s agenda, it is not just the judgements that may be wrong, but the game being played, and those who are allowed to play it. Not just the rating may differ and suffer, but a much more fundamental perception of who this person really is, who should decide, and why are we doing this anyway.

As it stands, probably without exception, every performance appraisal system fails to consider these dynamics. Rather than embrace double-loop learning, the appraisal discussion settles for a single loop. In place of recognition that organisations are complex adaptive systems, they are treated as machines, and we look for the faulty cogs, and fix them individually rather than the system as a whole. Modern science has yet to supplant out-of-date Newtonian thinking in the workplace. So what can be done?

Since appraisal and performance-related pay appear to be with us for some time, in parallel to individual appraisal you can bring work groups together and discuss questions aimed at improving the organisation’s performance; for example, “What is working well and not working well?. What are the obstacles that are stopping us from doing what we need to do? And what happens when we attempt to use leadership to improve things?”.