No One Likes Performance Evaluations

Here’s how you can avoid surprises, reduce rater error, and end the year on a high.
Performance evaluations, employee rating concept

© sesame / DigitalVision Vectors / Getty Images

What is the one statement that everyone can agree with regarding performance evaluations? If your answer is, “No one likes them,” you’d be correct. Yes, you heard it from the HR person—no one likes performance evaluations. The primary reasons are that people are uncomfortable giving and receiving feedback and don’t like working with misaligned expectations.

So, why do them if no one likes them? Because we need some form of accountability, some manner of documenting how we did throughout the year—to support promotions and merit increases and, unfortunately, sometimes for terminations.

Set Expectations, Avoid Surprises

Performance evaluations tend to go more smoothly when appropriate goals and competencies are clearly identified at the beginning of the performance period. Combined, goals and competencies form expectations.

Let’s take a step back and talk about competencies, because they are often more important than whether we achieve goals. Why? Let me put it this way: Goals are what we do, and competencies are how we do them. We can achieve every single goal on the list and more, but if we leave a trail of tears behind us wherever we go, we aren’t effective in our jobs.

The what and the how work together. I receive so many calls about employees who are stellar at getting things done, but no one wants to work with them.

We want to ensure the competencies (combination of knowledge, skills and abilities) are thoroughly understood, because they contribute toward managing and understanding expectations.

It’s easier to perform well—and even outperform— when we know what is expected of us. It’s also harder for supervisors to be capricious in their evaluations when expectations are clearly stated from the start.

Sometimes people don’t like the idea of setting expectations because they claim they’ll be boxed in, and expectations don’t allow for changes. That’s just plain and simple nonsense. Of course you can mutually agree to make changes in expectations! It’s often necessary because we live in a dynamic, everchanging environment.

You’ve heard the stories:

  • “I had no idea I was being evaluated on x.”
  • “No one ever told me I needed to do y.”
  • “I didn’t even know I was getting my evaluation that day.”

To avoid these situations, the essential factor in the process is communication. Communicating expectations at the outset and throughout the year will ensure a fair and wellreasoned evaluation and prevent the single most dreaded aspect of performance reviews—surprises!

No matter which style of performance evaluation a manager chooses to use, a positive and productive evaluation meeting won’t happen if there is a failure in planning and communication.

Potential Errors

Rater errors, which are often unintentional, can create other problems during the employee review process. The most frequently occurring are:

  • Personal or cultural bias. This happens when the evaluation is based not on the entire performance cycle but rather on whether the supervisor likes or dislikes the employee. This can also happen when reviewers look at performance through the lens of their own skill set, seeing how well or how poorly an employee performs a task that they are good at or, alternatively, not good at.
  • Recency effect. This is when the rating is determined by whatever has been accomplished within the last few months and does not take the entire performance evaluation period into consideration. This most often happens when employees ramp up their performance right around review time. Again, goal planning and setting expectations help to avoid this effect.
  • Leniency or strictness error. This happens when employees receive a good evaluation because the supervisor feels sorry for them. This can also happen when supervisors are afraid of or uncomfortable with giving a negative evaluation. Strictness comes into play when expectations are not articulated and the rater has unrealistically high expectations. Strictness also emerges when supervisors think they must find things the employee did “wrong.”
  • Halo or horn effect. This happens when employees are rated on one particular skill, and their strengths and weaknesses in other areas are overlooked. For example, they may be great with spreadsheets but have consistent typos and poor grammar in emails. Yet they get the highest rating because no one else is as good at spreadsheets. These errors can be positive (halo) or negative (horn).
  • Similar-to-me. This bias occurs when a group of individuals, all with interests, skills and backgrounds similar to the rater, are seen as highly competent and receive high ratings. This type of personal or cultural bias can be detrimental to culture because it makes the workplace less inclusive for those who are dissimilar.

No matter which style of performance evaluation a manager chooses to use, a positive and productive evaluation meeting won’t happen if there is a failure in planning and communication.”

360-Degree Evaluations and the CEO

Often, the idea of a 360- degree evaluation is raised to reduce rater error, but this process may pose additional challenges.

For example, who does the 360 for an association CEO? The staff? (Forgive my editorial comment here, but please, no. With the CEO responsible for staff evaluations, how can staff complete a CEO evaluation in an unbiased manner?) How about designated volunteer leaders? Members? Vendors? None of these parties can observe the CEO’s full performance, and so they may resort to providing a rating based on opinion. To provide truly valid feedback, they would need to know the expectations and competencies, opening the door to loss of confidentiality.

When used by professional development experts who implement a validated, industry-specific leadership assessment, 360-degree feedback can be a powerful tool. Used inappropriately, it can have devastating consequences.

To avoid pitfalls involved in CEO evaluations, it can be beneficial to engage the services of a neutral third party to work with the CEO (the first party) and designated leaders (the second party). A good neutral party will separately ask the CEO and designated leaders why they think a certain way and why “XYZ” is an important goal. The third party will facilitate discussion on the priority of certain goals and help set mutual expectations.

By doing so, the third party can identify problematic areas, help each party understand the other’s view, and potentially help form trust and consensus. The facilitator/third party often will suggest language that is not threatening or demeaning. In this way, the other parties are more receptive to whatever is being said, and feelings of blame or wrongdoing are lessened.

A neutral party can also assist in clarifying the roles of the CEO and designated leaders to establish the “why” of each position. When this is done properly, the process includes why the position exists, who does what (especially what the CEO needs to accomplish) and the required knowledge, skills and abilities for the CEO. If the goals are well written and include a timeframe, the next questions to ask and answer are who, what, where, when and why.

A Good Review?

Managing performance is an in-depth and nuanced process. While there is no perfect system, I recommend you use a process based on the three best practices of planning, communication and final evaluation. This not only helps set expectations and avoid rater bias, but also enables associations to end the year confident in a positive outcome.



About AExperience

All state and local REALTOR® association executives, association communication directors, regional MLS executives, and Government Affairs Directors receive AExperience at no cost. Issues are mailed to the address found in NAR’s M1 system. To update your AExperience subscription preferences, update your mailing address in M1.

Update your address