7 Ways Performance Reviews Are Misaligned With Learning Science

Can we start a conversation?

June 13, 2018
 

Image throws three panels of a Dilbert commit, featuring a boss and an employee character. In the first frame, the boss says, "Asok, your work has been excellent all year." In the second frame, the boss says, "I'm rating you 'poor' so I'll have a paper trail in case I ever need to fire you." In the third frame, the employee is crying as the boss says, "You'll probably feel a little surge of motivation because you got feedback."

I write this post with some trepidation. It is risky for staff to challenge the norms, expectations, structure and culture of our institutions. We don’t have protections of autonomy that the tenured faculty enjoys. So I want to be clear that in critiquing annual staff performance reviews I speak only for myself. These are not the positions of the unit with which I work.

I’m writing about annual staff performance reviews in hopes of generating a conversation. My goal is not to eliminate staff performance reviews, but to have a discussion about how we could make them better.

The more I learn about the science of learning, the less positive I become about annual staff performance reviews.

Annual performance reviews should be of particular interest to digital learning folks. We think a good deal about how our institutions can promote learning. And we are likely to be on the giving and receiving end of annual staff reviews.

To be sure, it is common to question the efficacy of the annual review. A quick Google search reveals thousands of articles critiquing this practice -- as well as examples of companies that have eliminated or radically changed this employee-management process. (Examples include Accenture, Adobe, Deloitte and GE.) There are also counterarguments as to why getting rid of the annual performance review is a bad idea.

In this conversation, I’d like to focus on the alignment (or misalignment) of the annual staff performance review what we know about how people learn. I offer some thoughts from a learning perspective as to why I think the current evaluation practices are problematic, and some ideas about possible solutions.

Problem No. 1: Formative vs. Summative Assessment

One of the big changes in postsecondary instruction has been to move away from a few high-stakes exams (summative), and toward a system of frequent low-stakes assessments (formative). The reason for this shift is the idea that assessments are not only an evaluation method, but a learning tool. Students can use assessment to figure out where they need work. Faculty can use assessments to figure out where to focus their time.

The growth of frequent low-stakes quizzes and papers and presentations have not eliminated midterms or finals. The hope is that high-stakes assessments are a more accurate diagnostic tool for accomplishment and mastery.

The problem with the annual staff performance review is that it is all summative -- all high stakes.

Solution: Work feedback should be like learning feedback. It should be frequent. It should be low stakes. It should be given with a goal of improvement, not evaluation. It should be forward looking. It should come close to the work being done.

Frequent and ongoing feedback from those managing academic staff is a challenge. It takes time. But it is much more effective in improving performance than a high-stakes annual review.

If feedback is frequent, the annual review will be different. It will not come as a surprise to anyone. It will be built on all the previous feedback conversations.

Problem No. 2: Internal vs. External Motivation

The only way to build long-term high performance is to also build internal motivation. External motivators, be they grades or praise or bonuses, work only in the short term. They do not lead to sustained and resilient changes in behavior.

So much of our higher ed assessment and evaluation system is built around external motivators -- scores and grades and rankings. This focus on external motivation causes all sorts of unintended consequences. Students prioritize grades over learning. They game the system to collect the external motivators, while neglecting to develop the habits associated with true success. Those habits involve persistently hard work, frequent failures and the ability to keep trying and keep learning from when things go wrong.

The system of stressing external over internal motivation has been frustratingly slow to change when it comes to our students. Maybe we can do better with the people who work at our colleges and universities. The goal should be develop internal motivation for all higher ed staff. This is motivation to work hard and excel when nobody is watching. When nobody is going to recognize the hard work. When nobody will say thank you.

Solution: The solution, I think, is to explicitly set out a goal with every team that what matters most is one’s internal motivation. To honestly talk about how practices that prioritize external motivation can have unintended negative consequences. To build the feedback and employee improvement practices around the goal of growing internal motivation.

Problem No. 3: Contextualized vs. Decontextualized Feedback

Learning requires feedback. Critical feedback. Timely feedback. Learning also requires that the learner is able to do something with the critique. The learner needs to be able to take some action in order to incorporate the feedback into their practices.

This is why formative assessment is so important. The student is able to use the evaluation in order to improve their work. The feedback gets contextualized within their efforts. That is why it is so critical that students receive feedback as close in time as possible to their work. And that this feedback be forward looking. How might one improve their work given what they just learned?

The problem with the annual staff performance review is that it is often decontextualized. It is not connected to the work that is done all year because it is too far away in time. There are limited opportunities to apply the specific feedback to the work practices. The focus is on evaluation, not learning.

Solution: The solution here is the same as the push for more formative workplace feedback. To have this feedback come often throughout the year, to have it closely associated with projects and initiatives and services, and to have it forward (rather than backward) facing.

Problem No. 4: Growth Mind-Set

If I could instill one habit of mind in every student, it would be the adoption of a growth mind-set. To think of every task as an opportunity to learn. To have the idea everyone can always improve, and that the goal is not perfection but learning.

The problem with the annual staff performance review is that a higher ranking -- a higher evaluation -- is always preferable to a lower ranking. It is better to get an Exceptional Performance (EP) ranking than a Needs Improvement (NI). In fact, NI is the lowest ranking on the scale of many review methodologies.

With a growth mind-set orientation however, Needs Improvement is the answer for every performance-related measure. We all need improvement in everything. We all have the opportunity to learn and grow. Nobody is naturally perfect in anything. We can all work hard and eventually move forward.

Solution: The solution is to recognize that the categories used in annual staff performance reviews to evaluate employees are antithetical to a growth mind-set way of thinking. The goal for everyone should be to identify where they need to improve, and what actions will support reaching that objective.

Problem No. 5: Strengths

So much of education seems to focus on attempts to correct for weaknesses, rather than opportunities to play to strengths. Why do we do this to our students?

We’ve taken this focus on improving areas of weakness into the postsecondary workplace. Rather than figuring out the strengths of the staff who work at our colleges and universities, and doing whatever we can to match employees work to those strengths, we continue to focus on trying to correct for weaknesses.

Why is this? Are we afraid that the strengths of the people who work at our institutions as staff are misaligned with the needs of the institution? Do we worry that if staff can only play to strengths, they will not do the hard work required of their jobs?

Our workplace focus on correcting weaknesses tends to dominate the annual staff performance review process. The focus on the conversations is often about what needs improvement.

What would happen if we all accepted that there are some things that we are just not very good at, and therefore we should minimize the amount of time and effort spent on those tasks? What would happen if we tried hard to place people in work that matches their strengths? If we crafted jobs around strengths?

Solution: Here the solution is to recognize that diverse teams are also high-performing teams. Part of the diversity we need is around strengths. You don’t want a team that is good at everything. You want a team where folks are great at the work that they do.

The challenge is setting the work up so that the units'/divisions'/departments' tasks are done to the excellent high standards that the institution requires. It is not easy to hire the right people, to move folks around and to be flexible in playing to strengths. A strengths-based approach to management is much harder to accomplish than one based on correcting weaknesses. One way to do this is to use the annual staff performance review as an opportunity to discover strengths, and to check in that the work is aligned with those strengths.

Problem No. 6: Risk Taking

How often do we say that we want our students, and our employees, to take more risks? To try big things. To fail fast. To learn from failures.

Our challenge is that so much of the evaluation system that we use for our students and our employees disincentivizes risk taking. Students choose classes based on their confidence in getting a high grade. Higher ed staff take on projects and initiatives with low probabilities of failure.

How much of our current annual review process celebrates failure? Where in the practices found in the normal review process is risk taking, and the failure that will come from taking risks, celebrated?

Our colleges and universities need their staff to try to do big things. Every staff member needs to take the mission of their institution as their personal mission. They can’t wait for leadership to draw a map of what actions everybody should be taking. Today’s challenging economic climate for higher education calls for bolder actions if schools are to remain viable and relevant.

Solution: Annual staff performance reviews should celebrate failures as much as successes. They should be opportunities to explore what nonincremental improvements the staff member attempted for the unit and the institution.

An annual performance review where everything is rated excellent should be cause for concern. There is no way to be excellent if you are trying new things. There will be stretches where you are quite bad at what you are doing. The annual performance review should incentivize doing hard things poorly, with the goal of eventually doing these things well.

Problem No. 7: Individual vs. Team Success

Students tend to dislike group work. They don’t like that their performance is evaluated as part of a team. They worry about free riders and the unequal distribution of task. They want to be judged for their own performance.

And yet, we as educators are moving more and more toward team projects and group work. We are doing this because we know that the work that our students will eventually do is almost never solo work. That they will always work in teams. That their success in their work lives will be largely dependent on their ability to work successfully with colleagues, partners, clients and collaborators.

Our annual staff performance review processes, however, largely ignore the team-based nature of our work. We are evaluated (almost always) as individuals, rather than teams. The assessment is all about how well individuals met their SMART goals, rather than how well the team was able to achieve its objectives.

The best staff are those that make everyone around them better. These are the people that enable everyone else to succeed. They are good team members.

Solution: Can we move toward team-based assessments? Can we think about the annual performance review in terms of what one has contributed to the work of colleagues?

The performance of a unit is not zero sum. Success is not limited to certain employees. We all succeed and fail together. Employee evaluation should focus on what makes team excel.

Questions

Do you know of college/university employee review processes that align better with what we know about learning?

What other ways do you see the annual staff performance review process aligned -- or misaligned -- with what you know about how people learn?

How much is the annual staff review process an exercise in creating a paper trail to get rid of low performers, as opposed to a process to encourage growth and improvement?

What would actually happen if schools scrapped the annual performance review for staff and moved toward a system of ongoing formative assessments that are explicitly aligned with learning science?

Do learning science and higher ed human resources people ever get together and talk?

Does anybody want to defend our current system of staff performance reviews?

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