Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 2;   January 11, 2017: Meets Expectations

Meets Expectations

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Many performance management systems include ratings such as "meets expectations," "exceeds expectations," and "needs improvement." Many find the "meets" rating demoralizing. Why?
Drawing the line between one category and the next

In the top half of the figure, where is the line between red and blue? Drawing the line between one category and the next might seem simple enough. But when subjective judgment is involved, or when information is unevenly distributed, people make differing choices.

Perhaps the most widely used rating in performance management systems is the dreaded meets expectations. People who contribute in ways and at levels that are certainly beyond anyone's expectations find "meets expectations" demoralizing. Why? After all, they did meet expectations. Here are some possible explanations for strong feelings about the "meets" rating, for people whose jobs fall in the category called knowledge work.

Check your own expectations
You risk disappointment unless you have concrete indications that your supervisor's expectations are in alignment with your own expectations vis-à-vis your performance. Rare are the supervisors who specify precisely their expectations for their subordinates' performance.
For many, it's realistic to assume ambiguity about the distinction between "meets" and "exceeds" performance levels. Most supervisors are free to assess anyone's performance as either "meets" or "exceeds" without risk of contradicting any standard, stated or not. To the extent that supervisors are free in this way, the distinction between "meets" and "exceeds" is meaningless, and expectations that you will receive any particular rating are unjustified.
Accept the complexity of performance
Performance is such a complex entity that precisely defining objective specifications distinguishing "meets" from "exceeds" is probably impossible. For some jobs, even writing a complete job description is difficult.
Even though Performance is such a complex entity
that precisely defining objective
specifications distinguishing
"meets" from "exceeds" is
probably impossible
you might feel that your performance exceeds anyone's reasonable expectations, recognize that you probably know more about your performance than your supervisor does. This isn't a justification for anyone undervaluing your performance. Rather, it's a criticism of the simple-mindedness of most performance management systems. To believe that one can justify any rating, including "exceeds," by citing facts, is to subscribe to the idea that one can rate performance on such a simple scale. Don't fall for this trap.
Know whether your supervisor has quota constraints
Often, employers use a performance rating framework known as forced ranking or forced distribution in which they set quotas for the various levels of the performance rating system. For example, they might require supervisors to rate no more than one subordinate as "outstanding" and no more than 5% of their subordinates "exceeds." Except for employees with serious performance issues, the rest of their subordinates are then relegated to "meets."
Such a scheme is, of course, irrational. It rates people not according to their performance, but according to some target distribution of ratings, nearly independent of performance. Because the irrationality of the scheme conflicts so dramatically with the high standards of rationality required of knowledge workers, many find the hypocrisy intolerable.

The problem of designing a performance management system for knowledge work is much bigger than merely distinguishing "meets" from "exceeds." In many cases, the value of a knowledge worker's contributions might not be evident — even to experts — until years pass. Keep that in mind when someone tells you that your performance "meets expectations." Usually, they really don't know what to expect.

Be less concerned about an obviously unjust performance evaluation than about having accepted as legitimate a fundamentally irrational performance evaluation process. Go to top Top  Next issue: On Differences and Disagreements  Next Issue

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