If you really want to evaluate performance across individuals, here are some things that need to be in place

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In my previous article, I discussed how many organizations spend time identifying who the top performers and stack ranking employees, to the detriment of assessing other areas that drive performance.  Management teams obsess on determining the best performers are. Once done, this implies you now have what it takes to get ahead in business.  It’s an annual rite.  Despite this process causing lots of angst, the appearance of accuracy in the face of tertiary impressions, and the general lack of results and perhaps damage it causes, this activity continues to have a high priority for many organizations.

OK, so if you really want to do it – you really want to compare employees — here are some things that have to be in place if you don’t want to cause so much damage and angst in the process:

1. You can compare people only across very similar jobs

Many organizations attempt to compare people across the organization, in kind of similar jobs, and under different managers.  Then they try to assess the value of the various outputs of the jobs that had different inputs and outputs.  If there were different projects and different pressures, different customers and different challenges, then it will be difficult to say who is the better performer.

2. There need to be some serious qualitative and quantitative metrics in place

There need to be consistent metrics being accumulated and reported surrounding the job output in the similar jobs.  Each job has some series of metrics that indicates good performance.  The metrics need to assess quality and quantity in some manner.  Then, with people with similar jobs, similar inputs, and similar outputs, you can start to compare from a metrics standpoint.

3. Have a similar evaluator of the metrics

Many organizations have metrics, but the evaluators of the quality metrics are frequently the manager for one team and a different manager on another team.  So one manager may be more lenient or focused on one behavior as being good, and score that high, while another manager may be more strict, have higher expectations, and score differently.  So when it comes time to evaluate employees, you are actually looking at two totally different evaluation systems.   You’re going to want some sort of third-party evaluator to make sure the metrics are consistent in the evaluation.

4. Have some transparency to the criteria and the “scoreboard”

It’s hard to keep score without a scoreboard.  It’s also hard to keep score with the scoreboard hidden from view.  It’s also hard to keep score when there isn’t clarity as to how to score points.  So you need rules of the game, a way to track when points are scored, and visibility as to what that score is.  Then employees can actually compete and even achieve higher performance.

What NOT to do:

5. Don’t add in the intangibles

Even with these more objective elements in place, you frequently get some intangibles that get added in when comparing employees.  Managers can’t seem to resist it.  Infused in discussions and debates within managers bring in concepts like  “Significant contributions,” “Team player,” “Potential” are all things that tend to get thrown around.  So even if you standardize the evaluation system, it still risks becoming a frequently highly subjective exercise.

6. Don’t confuse the one with the best metrics with inherent superiority

OK, so you finally have a standardized comparison in place.  What is it good for?  It’s limited. A standardized comparison system allows you to have some sort of standard reward system that drives toward the organizational metrics you want to achieve.  But please note, this does not determine who is the best employee or who has the most talent.  It does determine who had the best metrics given an even playing field, clear expectations for output when compared with others during a limited time frame.  That should be rewarded accordingly, but it doesn’t mean that the “winner” will win all other metrics and all other subjective battles, or even the same contest the next time it is played.

Now, even if you do all of this, you still risk not knowing “who is the best.”  An example can be found in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success.  In it, he shows how systems that have specifically been designed to identify those with the “highest potential” or “best ability” have flaws that leave out significant chucks of the population – as in the case of the way the best athletes are identified during their youth.

In his most descriptive example, he shows how professional hockey players from Canada tend to all be born in the first few months of the year, proving that the selection process has more bias toward the kids who are bigger and stronger by virtue of their birthdate, leaving out at least three quarters of the population from the possibly of being selected for elite hockey training and leagues.  (Other youth sports selection processes also are shown in Mr. Gladwell’s book to have similar biases.)

So if Canada hockey has had this blind spot in selecting who the top performers or top talent are – do you think your organization may have similar blind spots?  Could that top performer have actually done well in one early evaluation, and still be benefitting? Have you ever had objective metrics be confused with subjective superiority of an employee?  Or have you had intangibles turned into metrics and compared across employees in different roles?  What has happened?

In my next post, I’ll discuss an alternative way of looking at top talent: Strategic placement.

Related articles:

An obsession with talent could be a sign of a lack of obsession with the system

How to be collaborative rather than combative with your employees – and make annual reviews go SOOO much better

On the inherent absurdity of stack ranking and the angst it produces in employees

What to do when your boss gives feedback on your employee? That’s a tough one, so let’s try to unwind this mess.

What a manager can do if the big boss puts a tag on an employee

More reasons the big boss’s feedback on an employee is useless


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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


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