Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

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“Performance Review May Have Sparked NASA Shooting” screams a CNN headline. In Houston, the local police were trying to determine a motive for why a NASA contractor   fatally shot his boss and took another employee hostage before killing himself at the Johnson Space Center. It seems that this boss sent him an email performance review that was critical of his performance – performance review by email? NASA has said that they will review security procedures. I could not help but add in my mind “what about performance appraisal procedures”? Shouldn’t those be reviewed as well? It seems like a classic case of ignoring the underlying issue. If it proves out that the performance appraisal was the key, tightening security only gives the next person who wants to smuggle in a handgun a slightly greater challenge to overcome, rather than addressing the root cause.

Not too long ago on an employee survey in which attitudinal responses could be matched up to people’s performance appraisal rating, what we saw is that the largest gap between the highest rated performers and the lowest rated performers was “feeling valued by the organization”. Receiving a poor performance appraisal did not affect people’s intention to stay or leave; their feelings about the appraisal in helping them improve their performance, or a host of other potential actions. The one thing it did affect in this organization was the self-report by poor performers that they did not feel valued. So if the goal of this performance appraisal system was to make a certain group of employees feel less valued by the organization, it was working. If the goal was something else it was not.

In one manufacturing organization with a union, the goal (not officially stated) of the performance appraisal system was simply to document poor performance – “write em up”, was a commonly used expression. The thinking being that the organization needed to build a case in order to withstand the inevitable challenge from the union should they need to dismiss a person.

Meanwhile at the Russian News Service which controls a number of radio broadcast stations in Russia, good news is becoming official policy. The New York Times reports that the managers of the news service had implemented a policy that at least 50 percent of the news coverage on or about Russia must be positive. These apparent Kremlin allies also stated that opposition leaders could not be mentioned and the United States was to be portrayed as an enemy. “When we talk of death, violence or poverty, for example, this is not positive,” said one editor at the station. “If the stock market is up, that is positive. The weather can also be positive.”

I don’t know about you but I truly do believe in the benefits that a free press brings to society and this kind of manipulation makes my skin crawl. In one fell swoop the Russian News Service has made itself irrelevant and will now begin a decline into oblivion unless it changes course. By putting out 50% positive feedback as a “rule” it’s credibility that it is accurately portraying the news is zero and the Russians as they have done before will turn towards external sources of news to find out what is really happening.

Are people so fragile that they can “snap” upon hearing bad performance appraisal news and are they so easily manipulated that if you feed them a diet of pabulum that they will fall in line with official “policy”, actually believing that all is well due to a steady diet of good news? Of course the reality is likely to be where it usually resides, somewhere in the middle.

I was at a meeting recently where the facilitator put on a demonstration for the 100 or so people in the room. He told everyone to get up, walk around the room and randomly stop and describe to someone an issue you would like to do better upon and then listen to the advice the person had to offer you to improve in that area. Issues were things like “listen more” or “not rush to judgment” or “make more time for family” etc. The person you described your issue to, was supposed to offer one thing to you that you could try to improve in that area, preferably something that had worked for them. Two rules, you could not interrupt your advisor, you had to just listen and second at the end all you were allowed to say to the person giving you advice was “thank you”. At the end of about 20-30 minutes of this we all returned to our seats and were probed about what we thought about this performance improvement session. The results from the attendees were generally very positive. What did they like about this performance appraisal session? It was non-judgmental, it was non-threatening, and it was not done by someone who might have an ulterior motive or an axe to grind with you. So I could listen with an open mind and maybe get something out of the conversation. Maybe. 

How many of us could say that our performance appraisal systems which were designed to help improve the performance of the organization are non-judgmental, non-threatening and done in a truly unbiased fashion. Anyone? It would seem that the systems we have put into place to improve performance are designed in such a fashion as to make that noble goal fairly unlikely. Can it be that performance appraisal and organizational improvement are incompatible? Anyone care to try building one again?

In survey research I have yet to see a performance appraisal system that is well rated by the employees living under that system. Let’s make an assumption that the vast majority of people come to work wanting to do a good job. I think that is a safe assumption by the way. So if we were to create a positive working culture in the organization through tried and true principles and people want to do a good job anyway, maybe we should scrap our performance appraisal systems and develop “organizational improvement systems” and our conversations will be around what the individual can do to help contribute to organizational goals and what skills and abilities they need to develop to help make that happen. What about the 5% of the population that is not doing a good job and need to be eased out of the organization? I believe that their performance issues should not be addressed through the organization improvement system but should be addressed by a separate performance system, a system that would be irrelevant to 95% of the workforce.

What about organizations that tie performance appraisal to merit increase how would that happen if there is no appraisal of someone’s performance? How could we differentiate top performers for will get 4-5% increases from average performers who will get 3%. Do we really need performance appraisal systems to differentiate a 1-2 percentage point difference in salary increases? Seems kind of silly doesn’t it. We should be able to find a different path.

Organizations take a hit from an employee attitude standpoint when they are seen as not doing enough to correct poor employee performance. And in fact they take even more of a hit on that when the organization is a unionized environment. In other words people who are doing a good job and working hard want the others who are around them to be working hard and doing a good job as well. However, designing performance appraisal systems that are needed for 5% of the population, yet are onerous to 95% seems to be a monumental misjudgment.

If our goal is to create superb working environments where people can fulfill their potential and organizations can excel at delivering products and services to their customers we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work, we have a lot of redesigning to do.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 19, 2009 at 11:21 am

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