Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 3;   January 18, 2012: A Review of Performance Reviews: The Checkoff

A Review of Performance Reviews: The Checkoff

by

As practiced in most organizations, performance reviews, especially annual performance reviews, are toxic both to the organization and its people. A commonly used tool, the checkoff, is especially deceptive.
A mantis shrimp, recently discovered to have the ability to detect the circular polarization state of light

A mantis shrimp (Odontodactylus scyllarus), recently discovered to have the ability to detect the circular polarization state of light. It is not yet known what benefits this animal derives from this ability. There are two states of circularly polarized light: left circularly polarized and right circularly polarized. Light can be in any mixture of these two states, but these two states are all that are required to describe any polarization state of light. That is, the space of light polarization states is spanned by these two states.

The main shortcoming of checkoff systems for performance management applications is that the "states" in the checklist do not span the space of all possible performance histories. That is, the range of possible performance incidents for human performance is not capable of being represented by any combination of the elements of a finite set of checklist elements. It is this shortcoming that creates distortions in the documentation of performance by checkoff-based systems. Photo by Justin Marshall, University of Queensland. Courtesy U.S. National Science Foundation.

Performance review season in many organizations is now in full swing or just passed. As a tool of periodic reflection, performance reviews are a fine idea for accelerating employee development — in theory. But in practice, in most organizations that I've had contact with, performance reviews are downright toxic.

To understand why, let's consider the checkoff rating system often used for evaluating so-called soft skills. For instance, for evaluating listening skills, a performance review form might offer options such as these, usually ordered by desirability:

  • Has serious difficulty listening to others' opinions and maintaining open, two-way communications.
  • Has some difficulty listening to differing views and weighing them on their merits.
  • Listens to others with an open mind; receptive to differing views.
  • A very good listener, open to differing points of view; good two-way communications.
  • Excellent listening skills, very receptive to new ideas; excellent two-way communications.

Typically, reviewers are directed to select a single option, and then append comments in a space provided.

Such systems presuppose that performance is a constant, independent of context, unaffected by circumstances, and capable of being evaluated according to a limited number of levels. Moreover, they assume that the reviewer's perspective is valid, and that with respect to the performance being evaluated, the reviewer is omniscient. For instance, although in the reviewer's experience the performer might not have been receptive to differing points of view, it's possible that the performer is being subjected to harassment by peers, outside the awareness of the reviewer. But the reviewer's knowledge of such contextual factors is not usually measured.

Checkoff It's shockingly naïve to believe
that a rich, varied, complex,
multi-dimensional concept like
performance can be captured
with a single number or
ordered index level
systems like these serve two purposes. First, they standardize the reviewer's responses. In the event that the organization encounters a need to justify its human resource management decisions legally, as might occur, for instance, in a lawsuit, documentation containing well-crafted phrasing can provide helpful defense.

Second, checkoff systems dramatically reduce the reviewer's documentation burden, which has risen sharply as organizations have flattened. Checkoff systems provide a low-cost approach to documenting performance assessment.

It's shockingly naïve to believe that a rich, varied, complex, multi-dimensional concept like performance can be captured with a single number or ordered index level. Even when we decompose performance into supposedly orthogonal properties such as listening, communicating, job skills, total output, and so on, it is at best questionable to believe that we can attach a rating to each attribute and then use that data arithmetically to compose a meaningful overall rating result.

Still more shocking is the belief that we can compare the relative values to the organization of the performance of two individuals by comparing their ratings.

Those who create checkoff systems do indeed have something in mind, but it's more likely to be legal defense and performance review cost containment than it is employee development.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: A Review of Performance Reviews: Blindsiding  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenANRiGvdkJvvwrHQxner@ChacMruYKmnozJUGnMwLoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Uphill trekSelling Uphill: Before and After
Whether you're a CEO appealing to your Board of Directors, your stockholders or regulators, or a project champion appealing to a senior manager, you have to "sell uphill" from time to time. Persuading decision-makers who have some kind of power over us is a challenging task. How can we prepare the way for success now and in the future?
The Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal, showing their guide wallsIn the Groove
Under stress, we sometimes make choices that we later regret. And we wonder, "Will I ever learn?" Fortunately, the problem usually isn't a failure to learn. Changing just takes practice.
The Western Electric Plant at Hawthorne, IllinoisTen Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: II
Although many believe that "You get what you measure," metrics-based management systems sometimes produce disappointing results. In this Part II, we look at the effects of employee behavior.
Dr. Jerri Nielsen at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in 1999On Virtual Relationships
Whether or not you work as part of a virtual team, you probably work with some people you rarely meet face-to-face. And there are some people you've never met, and probably never will. What does it take to maintain good working relationships with people you rarely meet?
A Cliff Chipmunk in Saguaro National Park in ArizonaThis Is the Only Job
You have a job. Even though you liked it once, those days are long past, and a return is improbable. If you could, you'd hop to another job immediately, but economic conditions in your field make that unlikely. How can you deal with this misery?

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The United States curling team at the Torino Olympics in 2006Coming November 22: Motivation and the Reification Error
We commit the reification error when we assume, incorrectly, that we can treat abstract constructs as if they were real objects. It's a common error when we try to motivate people. Available here and by RSS on November 22.
A human marionetteAnd on November 29: Manipulators Beware
When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenpLycUAFkXHpXfhsXner@ChacoRPVowKxYOxTCdNxoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.