I’ve got the task of developing a performance evaluation process with and for faculty at the Process Work Institute. We’re a small training institute, and while we have had many different forums for feedback and evaluation, we’ve not created a standardized process that is tied to accountability.
It’s a tricky process. As a colleague pointed out, it’s been a steep learning curve. We’ve run into many snarls en route to developing this performance evaluation procedure. The topic is a minefield, on both sides, for the evaluated and the evaluator. For starters, it’s basically about being judged – am I good or bad? And trust. Can I trust who’s evaluating me? What about the disgruntled colleague or student who has it in for me? Or that the feedback is filtered through the personality of the other person, complete with their values, beliefs about me, biases, etc. And of course, now that we are moving towards performance evaluation as mandatory, it raises the twin issues of motivation and resistance. What’s in it for me? Why should I jump that hoop? And do these standards relate to my own personal growth goals? And probably one of the biggest difficulties is that, like any tight knit organization, we sit comfortably in a single loop learning style – we have our way of looking at things and doing things, and when it comes to performance evaluation, we can police ourselves thank you very much.
But of course we can’t. And we know that. So we want the opportunity to reflect on ourselves, to a degree. Because it’s also human nature to bristle at anyone who points out any kind of flaw, even if they call it a “challenge” or “opportunity.” We know negative feedback and criticism, no matter what perfume it has on.
I could write volumes on this, and others have, better than I can. So, the point I want to focus on is the question of accountability. Why do we, or does any organization, need evaluations, and accountability procedures? Why does bureaucracy have to intervene here?
As I ponder it, I think the real meaning of performance evaluation is a cost analysis: does what you add to a group outweigh what you cost your colleagues, customers, and organization? That sounds harsh to think that who we are has a price tag, but it does. Mostly, we add value. But it’s often hard to see the price others pay in getting along with us. Even our talents come with a price. I have a great talent at seeing the bigger picture, and this comes with the cost of frequently neglecting details and making small mistakes that definitely cause some teeth grinding downstream. Or, if I am difficult to collaborate with, I make the atmosphere tense, if I derail the conversation, neglecting the deadline that the other team members are trying to meet, I cost those around me in terms of energy, emotional wear and tear.
The problem isn’t what we cost; the problem is not knowing that cost, and not taking measures to reduce the difference between our value and our costs. For instance, if I am sloppy with details (as I am), and I send out information with the wrong date, this means that the office staff or my organizer has to spend extra time chasing me down to correct dates, sending out corrections, and responding to questions because people have been misinformed. In order to mitigate that cost, I need to do something – apologize, offer to help write the emails or mail out the corrections, or offer to pay extra money for the extra time involved. If I don’t, if I just assume someone else will clean up that mess, and anyway, mistakes happen, then laws, regulatory agencies, performance reviews, police forces, etc., spring up to fulfill the function I neglect.
Whatever we miss doing for ourselves, we outsource to another body. But this escalates the problem, and brings in force or power of some kind. If two people can’t resolve a fight alone, then a third party comes in to resolve it for them. When we outsource it to another we use power in place of natural consequences.
Barbara Coloroso, a parenting expert, uses the concept of natural consequences in parenting. Rather than controlling behavior through force or might (Do so because I say so!) children should learn that what they do has consequences for which they are responsible. You throw a cigarette butt out your house window and start a fire next door that threatens your home as well. You see and experience the consequences of your action, and are forced to take steps to counter it. But we seldom have that proximity to the effects of our action. We have lost contact between cause and effect. So laws are created that replace natural consequences with force. Don’t do this because the government says so. Now it’s impersonal, and there is no longer a reason attached. The violator, the one who throws the butt out the window, whether he obeys the law or not, is still dissociated from the loss of habitat, cost to taxpayers, homelessness, and the myriad issues caused by that one action.
Getting back to the issue of performance evaluation – I don’t deal with my sloppiness, and eventually the office staff complains. So a new law gets posted: if you make a mistake on your dates, you are responsible for making the correction, or something like that. But now it’s bureaucracy, an arbitrary law. I might improve, but I probably won’t. Even more significantly, I haven’t become more aware of what I cost.
I believe this is one of the reasons evaluators chafe at their role. Not only because they may not be trained for it, but also because they are recruited into the role because the person isn’t evaluating themselves sufficiently. The function really belongs to the one being evaluated. That’s why, in the way we do feedback at the Process Work Institute, we make a big point of training the ones giving and getting feedback to take the other roles.
The one receiving feedback should already know that feedback – it’s only coming to them from the outside because they somehow missed it. Feedback we don’t know about ourselves catches us by surprise, and is the worst kind. It hurts the most to receive criticism about something we don’t know about ourselves. But we should. We should be in touch with our cost, and have a sense of how we are received. On the other side of the equation, giving feedback is hardest when the person receiving it doesn’t already know about. It’s for these reasons that the real learning involved in evaluation is less about substance (what should I focus on) and more about the process (Do I already know this, and if not, why not?).
And the big question is, why don’t we? There’s been a lot written about this, especially recently. It’s a well know problem in social psychology that people chronically overrate their performance (unless they are depressed). Cornell psychologist David Dunning, PhD. is one of the top researchers in this field. He’s found that in North American culture, people overestimate their abilities, and that the least competent performers inflate their abilities the most. No one really knows for sure why this is the case. People are definitely prone to bias. They overrate the particular areas they excel at, and minimize the importance of those areas they don’t excel at. For instance, people with verbal ability would overestimate the role verbal ability, in contrast to mathematical ability, plays in intelligence. Or task focused people would rate task orientation as the most important leadership trait on a questionnaire about what makes a good leader.
Another reason we don’t see ourselves more clearly is due to fundamental attribution error, meaning, we tend to give credit to ourselves for a positive outcome, and lay the blame elsewhere for a negative outcome. Additionally, we seldom receive accurate feedback about ourselves. People tend to give each other more positive feedback to their faces, but say negative things behind their back. Finally, people lack the information they need to fully assess themselves; the paradox is that our incompetence makes us incompetent to accurately judge ourselves.
But another reason is that we don’t see ourselves as part of the whole. It’s one of the reasons we struggle to see the environmental impact of our decisions, or the nutritional and health impact of our behaviors. Social marketers who try to educate the public about health issues such as skin cancer, AIDS awareness, smoking, and drunk driving, have to contend with this problem a lot: How do we get people to relate to the consequences of their actions? In organizations, how do we get people to identify with the organizational itself, not just their job, team, or silo?
Power is used as the intermediary between people, between individuals and whole. Rules and law force us to be responsible to each other, to think of the whole when we have lost our ability to do so. We’ve made a big leap from performance evaluation to politics, but I think the common denominator is the essence of organization – association and affiliation. When we don’t affiliate with others, we outsource that task to the government or bureaucracy, and then inveigh against its restrictive rules and regulations. But we can and should police ourselves, not out of a sense of duty or morality, but out of the sense of connection and community. It reminds me of how Gandhi understood freedom – not as the ability to do whatever you wanted, but as liberation from the prison of dualism – that we are separate from each other. Democracy has always been a tension between its two parts: demos (people, community) and kratie (power, law). While we struggle to comprehend community, to identify with the demos, we depend on kratie, the power to force affiliation, but in the absence of heart, it becomes mere obedience.