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You suggestion on how to avoid surprise in performance reviews is one that more companies should use. I have found an even more effective way to avoid the surprise is to actually manage and lead employees all year long. Talk to them about performance regularly. Make sure they always know where they stand and what they need to do to progress.If this was done, the self-evaluations would be "performance confirmations" and requests for guidance for further success.

Quite correct, Dan. When performance review is a continual ongoing process rather than a special event that occurs only once a year, you minimize the "surprise party" risk. This suggestion may be unnecessary for those who actively and properly manage performance every day, but those who do NOT will need every aid they can get. Maybe it will inspire them to do it right next year, so the year-end review will become a simple roll-up of multiple feedback discussions and a springboard for future improvement.

Good post, Jim, and solid advice about how to arrange a mutually productive appraisal session. However, would you offer the same advice about quarterly updates if the manager has, say 10 or more employees?

Much of the advice out there these days about how to conduct performance reviews seems to consider that the manager has only one employee to worry about. In my experience processes and good intent seems to break down when quantity is involved.


Your suggestion to ask employees to write a self-appraisal sounds attractive, but it really is not a good idea. Here's why.

In their well-known article, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Cornell University researchers Justin Kruger and David Dunning report that those who are incompetent performers are also incapable of assessing the difference between good and bad performance. As they put it, “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, they are left with the mistaken impression that they are doing just fine.”

Research consistently demonstrates that individuals are notoriously inaccurate in assessing their own performance, and the poorer the performer, the higher (and more inaccurate) the self-assessment. Research by the consulting firm Lominger, Inc. indicates that “The overall correlation between self-ratings and performance was .00. The most accurate rater by far is the immediate boss.”

In July 2007 BusinessWeek surveyed 2000 Americans in middle management positions and above, asking them the question, “Are you one of the top 10% of performers in your company?” Not one of the subgroups in the survey had less than 80 percent of the respondents answering the question affirmatively. Eighty-four percent of all middle managers reported that they were in the top ten percent of performers in their company. Executives — the most deluded cluster by far — provided a Yes response in 97 percent of those surveyed.

The final problem with asking an employee to write a self-appraisal is that doing so may create a false impression of what the nature of performance appraisal is. When he’s been asked to write a self-appraisal, particularly when it’s written on the company’s appraisal form, it’s easy for an employee to assume that the structure of the performance appraisal process is that both the individual and the manager write appraisals of the individual. They then get together, share each one’s document with the other, and then come to a common agreement on the final performance appraisal.

That’s wrong. Again, the appraisal is a record of the supervisor’s opinion. The review meeting is a discussion, not a negotiation. Asking the individual to create a self-appraisal encourages misunderstanding by both parties.

Dick Grote

Great points, Dick. Yes, of course, one would NEVER rely on the employee's self-appraisal instead of the responsible supervisor's review. You are quite correct that those many who misinterpret their personal superiority need to be enlightened about what the manager really seeks in their output results. That's exactly why a preview process can be helpful.

The self-appraisal option is a PREQUEL to the official formal supervisor's decision, which becomes the documented record. The self-examination process (however it may be conducted) is simply an aid to better mutual understanding. It is done primarily for the supervisor to gain insight into the subordinate's self-image, so as to more efficiently properly focus the appraisal communication exercise. Where they agree, no sweat; the manager can incorporate the employee's correct views and not waste time on areas of agreement. If the self-review is delusional, it alerts the boss and permits the supervisor to correct any misapprehension in the official review session. I suggest a resolution process facilitated by preview input supplied by the employee but with final authority reserved to the manager alone. It's not a negotiation but a communication where mutual understanding does not require compromise on the part of the supervisor who remains the official appraiser. As I'm sure you agree, Dick, ignoring the subject's unreasonable self-assessment (espectially if the corrective intervention has been reserved to the last minute and saved for the formal annual review) is a receipe for disaster; this is the last moment for any reality check that may have been deferred earlier. Agree completely with you on your underlying points, however, because they emphasize how vital it is that the purpose, scope and weight of any self-assessment is clarified in advance.

Jim, terrific post. I do have problems with the annual performance review construct for many reasons. That's one reason we advocate using strategic recognition as an element of a review. If you allow peer-to-peer recognition, requiring detailed messages of why the recognition is being given, and then including that feedback into reviews, managers will often get a much more full picture of employee contribution, capability and even interests than they would be aware of otherwise.

As I wrote elsewhere:

"You [the manager] are still just one data point on your achievements. I would say instead, no one knows who's doing the best job like the PEOPLE doing the job."

(from this post: http://blog.globoforce.com/2010/08/power-to-people-how-to-improve.html)

Thanks, Derek. I strongly agree with the vital need for multiple-perspective input feeds into the review process, as you also advise. The people doing the work certainly do know best what THEY are actually doing; but the judgment of the adequacy of their output results is truly a responsibility reserved to the manager. After all, the boss is the one supposed to guide and direct performance towards the proper organizational objectives rather than what the subordinates might perfer to do; but the manager's understanding can be expanded by considering information from peer sources.

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