Emergence © Mark Dorf

The Problem With Your Performance Review

By Dara Blumenthal, PhD and Nathan Snyder

We’ve grown up in a world that has accustomed us to judgment for our performances. Ours is not traditionally, a society that teaches us to intentionally reflect on experiences, such that they become the fertile ground for deepening self-understanding, broadening learning, and growing beyond. Rather, ours is a society of stark comparison and rational progression. We learn to know ourselves through our successes and failures as compared to our family, friends, and peers. From our childhood, through adolescent schooling, to our yearly performance reviews, our learning and working lives are, in part, based upon performance assessments.

Performance assessment at least in theory, provides a benchmark that can help create opportunities for development. Though, because our systems are largely comparative and simplistic — e.g. task-based — the emphasis tends to be on performing for the assessment rather than, assessing for development. The development part gets left out. When the focus is on the performance standards of the assessment, there are fundamentally fewer opportunities for real growth and development. Instead there is a path or ladder presented to us that we should follow. In this way we grow towards the assessment rather than based upon our natural growth trajectories. In these cases we’re using simplistic definitions of performance and thus inherently simplifying the person doing the performing. This is a surefire way to hold back your people, rather than develop them.

Let’s not confuse assessment for development, they are not necessarily one and the same. Just because you’re being assessed at work does not mean you’re developing.

There are dozens of approaches to assessing performance. Some of these approaches have been built in-house by HR departments, others by outside consultants, and now, new approaches are being built by software startups. Sometimes these approaches require training for engaging with them properly (creating yet another layer of standards and expectations); yet actionable and aware feedback is still often difficult to give and receive, and building scalable, cross organizational programs for the human side of management is becoming even more difficult.

Still, for as many assessment approaches that exist, there are as many organizations that seemly make good use of them. At those organizations people are generally happy, and while they may bemoan their reviews and the processes associated with them, they are still processes and approaches that work. Your organization works.

If you are in such a circumstance at your company or are behind approaches that are working for you and the organizations that you touch, this article may not be for you. However, if you are in an organization that is taking an approach to evaluation and performance that doesn’t seem to be working effectively, read on.

Framing Evaluation Under 21st Century Conditions

Emergence © Mark Dorf

The meaning of work has radically changed. Work that once happened through muscle labor is now predominantly performed through mental labor. However, our value of people has not yet made this radical transition. We still predominantly view people at work as behavioral resources — like cogs in a machine — because of a nascent understanding of the mind, a static understanding of the self, and a simplistic view human capability. Yet, people are being asked to do increasingly abstract and interpersonal labor within organizations that have placed little value in critical thinking, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence. For the most part, our jobs are not merely task-based anymore, though that is how we are still expected to do them and to evaluate them.

Due to leftover conceptions from 20th century organizations, we now face a huge disparity between the capability of employees and the complexity faced in organizational environments. Time and time again people find themselves in leadership positions or being led by those who lack the requisite competencies to productively deal with 21st century challenges. This isn’t entirely those leaders faults; in some cases, their career progress has itself lacked the development necessary for tackling complex, abstract, or critical awareness challenges.

When our paradigm is simply following orders and completing tasks within a human environment, we become culturally conditioned to engage in a social politics that views interactions with other people as tasks to accomplish. Our task requirements are increasingly relational, while our management structures are increasingly transactional. While politics may always be present, a politics without understanding, connection, and empathy will always greatly restrict what is possible for the organization and their employees.

By and large we don’t know how to support the growth and development of employees because the foundational approach of measuring minds, which grounds normative approaches to developing adults, is broken for 21st century conditions.

Similarly to other fields such as biology, ecology, and complexity economics we have learned that understanding systems without a point of view on the whole, will always reduce the whole to merely the a sum of its parts. Humans are no different. When we think about humans as machines, simple or complex, they become closed systems. Humans and our innate intelligences are closer to natural ecosystems, which evolve, co-develop, and adapt to the circumstances they mature within.

The Problem with our Performance Reviews

There are dozens of frameworks available for evaluating leadership, emotional intelligence, productivity, purpose, empathy, culture management, etc. Most of these methods for understanding people have to do with their performed behaviors or self-reported perspectives. They are flat. No matter how intricate or complicated, they almost always lack both the depth and complexity required for developing humans beyond the beaten path. People become merely the sum of their parts because only parts of them are being assessed. In these cases, the mind is co-opted into little more than a technical mechanism, a cause and effect response machine. In the best cases, it is an emotionally and interpersonally sensitive one. While specifics about traits, performance, and capability are crucial, when used as sole measures or frameworks for understanding humans we severely compartmentalize human potential.

People cannot just ‘download’ development software and ‘update their operating system’ to ‘turn on’ these new frameworks. Our minds are not memory sticks waiting to be filled with the latest employee development program.

Furthermore, software that requires us to report our perspectives and experiences in retrospect will seldom be able to intervene in our behavior in the future. What is needed to deal with the dynamic nature of new work environments is an adaptive philosophy of the mind that incorporates a sophisticated understanding of cognition, identity, and social relations.

Taking this into consideration, we are left with real questions regarding the balance between setting standards, creating high performing teams, and igniting group bonds. Can a team become high performing if the values and assumptions about the culture are divergent or unclear? How do we develop and nurture the next generation of leaders if our standards aren’t performance-based? Is strict hierarchy absolutely necessary for developing people’s careers? How can we do it better? How we can align personal purpose with our organization’s purpose (and not the other way around)?

In order to overcome these challenges we need to understand the people who make up these organizations and their work in a whole new way.

We must not only evaluate our employees behaviors, performance, and their fit with the organizational and cultural requirements, but also seek to understand the employee’s growth capacity and capability from within the deep structure of their development and felt purpose. Assessment in traditional environments is not development. It is summative and reductive. It is overly rationalistic and simplistic. Its failure to capture human complexity in turn limits us, making us into employable and deployable resources.

It is time for a new approach to assessment beyond the measure and the score and we are creating it. It is a method for understanding, development, awareness, and intervention. It is a framework for real growth that provides opportunities for actionable feedback and deep learning, for individuals and their cultures.

We’re currently using this approach at Nature of Work for recruiting, coaching, and organizational design and development, both internally and with clients. If you’re interested in trying it out, creating an approach for your organization, or would like to learn more, get in touch and we’ll forge a way forward.

Nature of Work has merged with Live Grey. We’d love to hear from you!