Monday, July 12, 2010

I love Lucy

Reading in my soon-to-be-discontinued FT subscription, Lucy Kellaway this morning offered bold and brilliant advice to managers around the world:

My appraisal of job appraisals: get rid of them
Lucy Kellwaway On Work

Last week an e-mail went round the office touting for suggestions on ways to improve our performance appraisal system. My suggestion is dead easy and dirt cheap: get rid of the whole thing and replace it with nothing at all.

Over the past 30 years, I have been appraised three dozen times – as banker, journalist and non-executive director. ….

But never have I learnt anything about myself as a result. I have never set any target that I subsequently hit. … The norm is a harrowing hour’s conversation during which you are forced to swallow an indigestible mix of praise and criticism referring to long-ago events, which leaves you demotivated and confused on the most basic question: am I doing a good job?
Beyond Bullsh*t: Straight-Talk at WorkAfter citing all the problems, she goes on to quote Samuel Culbert of UCLA’s Anderson School, who advocated abolishing all evaluations. Apparently Culbert was on the radio last week, promoting the paperback edition of his book Beyond Bullsh*t. His alternative: a regular 1-on-1 relationship talk in which both parties talk about what’s working and what’s not.

It sounded like a great argument. In fact, from my experience as a manager and an entrepreneur, I loved the argument when he made it in the Wall Street Journal two years ago. The arguments also resonate with Bob Sutton of Stanford, who’s blogged about the topic in May and February of this year.

(Here I am only talking about appraisals in private firms. In institutions such as universities some sort of formal periodic appraisal is clearly essential to assure accountability and fairness prior to granting lifetime employment.)

However much I agree with Lucy, Sam and Bob, it seems like tilting at windmills to hope that performance appraisals will ever go away. The reasons are numerous: institutional isomorphism, bureaucratic inertia, HR norms or just the usual fear of litigation. Still, some entrepreneurial companies (as Sutton hints) may be able to find a way to tweak or supplant the obviously flawed system with a real mechanism for providing feedback, motivation and accountability for the average worker.

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