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Tell it like it is

24 August, 2015

No wonder companies are dropping ratings. We have adopted sloppy labels for people.

Imagine if you took the performance rating labels of “meets expectations” or “exceeds expectations” and used them in other everyday contexts, you can hear just how meaningless they are:

  • “I test drove a few cars, and the mini-Cooper significantly exceeded expectations”
  • “I chose the green sweater because it meets expectations”
  • “We considered getting a cat, but cats don’t meet our expectations”

In ordinary life, we have specific reasons for things, and have no problem articulating them:

  • “I test drove a few cars, and the mini-Cooper is super easy to park and saves money on fuel”
  • “I chose the green sweater because it’s really soft”
  • “We considered getting a cat, but cats don’t show affection”

So why do we use vague terms like “meets expectations”, “does not meet”, etc. in our performance management systems? 

I believe it’s because these labels give us a way to be indirect regarding work performance. With these fuzzy labels, managers don’t have to tell it like it is. The labels we use provide a vague, non-confrontational way to summarize performance and ease the pay conversation that will follow.

SMART goals, VART ratings

I once had a job where I was assigned nine (9) KPIs one year. They were more or less SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. I completed all my KPI’s and exceeded some of them. But my boss told me my performance didn’t quite fully meet expectations, and referred to some feedback that was totally unrelated to the KPI’s. It was a small thing (something about meetings running a little long), but it somehow overshadowed all the KPIs I had completed.

I understand why we call it “forced” ranking. It’s because managers are being forced to re-characterize good performance as not so good, in order to conform to a pre-determined picture of organisational mediocrity where 70% of people are ordinary, 15% suck and 15% shine. The fact is, the great majority of people I have worked with over the years have generally worked very hard, achieved the vast majority of their targets, and deserve to be told “well done” at year-end. Of course, a few people don’t and their message should be different. But I have definitely seen workforces where 95% of people did, or exceeded, what was asked of them. It’s like raising the bar of a high jumper after they have already cleared it, and declaring they did not jump high enough.

It’s safer for you as my boss to create an expectation that my performance “meets expectations”, not “exceeds expectations”, even though I am actually exceeding expectations, knowing full well that a rating of “meets expectations” does not meet my expectation of getting a rating of “exceeds expectations.”

From absolute to relative

Another problem with these labels–the ones that refer to expectations–is they turn an absolute SMART goal and evaluate it relative to “expectations”, not relative to the actual target that was set. For example, let’s say you are my boss and you give me a KPI to complete a process audit by end of June (a SMART goal) and I complete the Audit by end of May, it’s pretty obvious that I exceeded expectations. But in January, HR runs a bunch of calibration sessions and as a result, getting my audit done in May is no longer a big deal, but is deemed to be “meets expectations”.

No wonder my boss didn’t say anything nice to me when I completed the audit in May, a month ahead of schedule, as such acknowledgement might create an expectation in MY mind that my rating would be “exceeds expectations”. It’s safer for you as my boss to create an expectation that my performance “meets expectations”, not “exceeds expectations”, even though I am actually exceeding expectations, knowing full well that a rating of “meets expectations” does not meet my expectation of getting a rating of “exceeds expectations.” In other words, if we as employees have great expectations of being rated “exceeds expectations”, we may be disappointed when a rating of “meets expectations” is given, which does not meet our (great) expectations.

Let’s be smart. If we set SMART goals, why at year-end do we use “expectations” which is a vague and relative term (VART)? Let’s stick with SMART goals, and let people know how they are measuring up to them. Let’s tell it like it is.

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(Want to see what other companies are doing? Take this 10 minute survey on Ending the Use of Ratings in Asia, and get the results so you can be smart about performance management and the specific drivers, enablers and barriers to removing ratings in key Asian locations.)

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