Can I disagree with your self-assessment?

We are gearing up for year-end evaluations in my neck of the woods so I have been thinking a lot about the value, if any, of employee self-evaluations as an aid to this process.

The invitation to self-assess can be driven by a genuine desire to hear the employee’s perspective on how the year went and this is key element in understanding the whole picture of what happened. That said, extending the invite also attracts the risk that you and the employee don’t share the same views on what is working (or not) and who holds responsibility for any disconnects.

Since year-end evaluations can often be fraught with anxiety, should you bother venturing into this delicate area? I think that the invite should generally be extended to the benefit of both parties.

It generally goes well: I support some kind of reflection on the year by both employees and managers and I think that this reflection should occur before the manager writes a description of year-end assessment. I no longer present my written narrative of the year that was as a first step to the year-end discussion. From past experience, if I do that, most employees will quickly agree with the contents and sign it to have the discussion over with. I now send employees a few questions to guide a more open discussion before I start writing the appraisal. These would include questions about accomplishments from the year but also questions like: What keeps you here? and What am I doing to support (and hamper) the team’s development? The goal is to make the consideration of what to include in the write-up that is inclusive of both perspectives. Generally, we can agree easily on the highlights of the year but there may be instances that significant accomplishments stood out for only one of us.

What is most interesting for me is that my list of accomplishments is generally much longer than what the employee provides. This isn’t just a question of me being generous but rather what I see as the limit of the self-assessment for employees in appraisals. After taking a similar approach for a few years, I see that, in general, the accomplishments will go back perhaps four to six months maximum whereas I try to keep notes through the year to make sure I have a complete record. In addition, employees will generally focus on finishing documents and projects rather than reflecting on the soft skills advanced such as abilities that they strengthened or relationships built.

When it works well, the self-assessment component increases the engagement of the employees in the process and seems to bring the stress levels down about what will actually end up on the page. Though I firmly believe in the “no surprises” approach to appraisals, the process of getting something down on paper to mark the year that was, can still be anxiety provoking.

In addition, any disconnect that you perceive as a manager on where someone is at, as against their own assessment, can be discussed in the context of tools that would support development in the year ahead. In my Department, we have access to competency rating guides and definitions that we can use to support a discussion of the standard we are helping the employee to achieve.

And when it doesn’t go well: Where the invitation to self assess can get messy is if you make the invitation to self-assess in the belief that you’ll both end up in the same ballpark and you don’t. This article mentions a non-cited study that says that employees performing well tend to be more modest and employees not performing well, tend to be more boastful. So, you disagree with the employee’s high opinion of their accomplishments. Then what?

Can you disagree with the self-assessment? I’d argue that you can’t and not just because of semantics. If you invite the employee’s opinions, I think that you have bargained away your option to disagree with this information. Asking an employee to put their neck out in this way only to have you pull the rug out from under them, can leave them vulnerable and potentially damage the ongoing relationship. For this reason, I would argue that you can only build on this information they provide and not subtract from it. In this situation, all of this information should form part of the assessment picture.

The rub: Though useful when relationships are good, self-assessments which might generate an area of discord must be used with the “yes, and” principle in improv comedy. You can only add to the information provided, not subtract.

If you aren’t sure how it will go, I would do one of two things: Possibly, I would use self-assement tools for which the standalone input of the employee is the natural end of the process. For example, I have sometimes offered employees a values clarification exercise as a jumping off point for a discussion on job fit. This type of reflection clearly begins and ends with the employee’s information. If they choose to share it with me, I can add it to my mental folio of supports for giving them meaningful work but I am not going to go beyond affirming their reflections.

As a second alternative, I would just avoid the self-assessment altogether. You’ll avoid the danger of the illusion that the appraisal is completely democratic when, in the end, the manager has the accountablity for the final assessment.

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