Bookshelf - Abolishing Performance Appraisals

Managing Without Performance Appraisals

By Lynn Miller Jan 1, 2001
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HR Magazine,   July 2000

The research is clear. The outcome is consistent. We know with certainty that the most powerful leadership tool for improving productivity and increasing employee satisfaction is regular, frequent and balanced performance feedback. Emerging data show that feedback is a key driver for continuous learning, creativity and, ultimately, customer satisfaction.

How then does something with such potential for success create so much dissatisfaction, lowered morale and genuine disruption in the workplace? Any one of us who has been on the giving or receiving end of a performance appraisal sadly knows the answers: The transition from theory to application is disjointed, and the practices used to facilitate and support feedback are flawed.

Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins attempt to help us understand why things go wrong in the performance appraisal process. They readily admit that Abolishing Performance Appraisals is one of numbers of books slicing and dicing the practice of performance appraisal. But several things set this effort apart.

The material is very well written. The authors’ style is crisp and clear, making it unusually readable. Three discrete sections bring logic and order to an encumbered—and sometimes confounding—management system by reviewing the traditional causes of failure, examining the core reasons for conducting appraisals and describing the transition to alternatives.

From the beginning, we are warned that the objective of the book is not to provide solutions. Rather, the goal is to reformulate our thinking and modify our assumptions so that we are prepared to forge a new environment. In this new work culture, partnership is the cornerstone, supervisors have the latitude to provide feedback in the form most appropriate to their individual situations and employees take full responsibility for themselves.

While this scenario sounds Pollyannaish at best (and completely naïve at worst), the authors attack the issues with such energy and enthusiasm that it’s difficult to dismiss their approach out of hand.

Coens and Jenkins say their research indicates that performance appraisals are conducted for as many as six reasons:

  1. improvement
  2. coaching/guidance
  3. feedback/communication
  4. compensation,
  5. staffing/development
  6. termination/documentation.

The fundamental problem, the authors maintain, is that using one process as the delivery vehicle for so many complex activities is impractical as well as dysfunctional. And, they continue, no amount of tinkering can solve the problem. They dismiss as futile efforts at using 360-degree performance appraisals, performance management, management by objectives, etc., because, they aver, the only true solution is wholesale abandonment of performance appraisals.

The chapters analyzing the relationship of performance appraisals to the six functional areas are especially well done. In fact, they are so compelling and the authors are so ardent that at times you want to say, “OK, I surrender. I promise never to use performance appraisals again.” And just to keep you interested, at the end of each chapter, the authors cleverly conduct a comprehensive review of traditional assumptions and lay out alternative assumptions that amplify and clarify their thinking and logic.

Section three sets out a 14-step methodology for making the transition from traditional performance appraisals to alternatives. This is the most disappointing part of the book. Even though the sequence is nicely designed and carefully constructed, there is no resolution. The authors justify this lack of closure by saying that there is no existing model that resolves the issues they have identified. They state that each individual organization must find its own answer. They warn that this process is intensive in terms of time, effort and cost, and that there is no shortcut. The combination leaves the reader frustrated.

In their defense, Coens and Jenkins do give ample warning about the endpoint. Approached with that knowledge, Abolishing Performance Appraisals is a useful addition to the performance appraisal literature.

Steve McIntosh, Ph.D., is president of Tartan Consulting and a founding partner of the Southern Leadership Institute, headquartered in Bonita Springs, Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins

Abolishing Performance Appraisals: Why They Backfire and What to Do Instead
by Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2000, 300 pages.
List price: $27.95.
ISBN: 1576750760.

It’s Not the Big That Eat the Small … It’s the Fast That Eat the Slow: How to Use Speed as a Competitive Tool in Business
By Jason Jennings and Laurence Haughton
HarperBusiness, 2001,
288 pages,
List Price: $26.00
ISBN: 0-06-662053-8

If you feel the need for speed, this book is for you. Jason Jennings, who heads Jennings Partners, a business consulting practice, and Laurence Haughton, the firm’s chief strategist and tactician, believe that speed is critical in today’s business environment. To quickly bring products, ideas and services to the market, organizations need to be fast on their feet in every area, including human resources.

This fast-paced book—enlivened with brief, snappy summaries of each subsection—demonstrates that the authors believe readers share a concern about wasting time. A “Sixty-Second Heads Up” ends each chapter by summarizing the text in bulleted points. The writing style is direct and no-nonsense, as revealed in chapter titles and subheads such as “We Don’t Suck Worse than Them.”

Using real-life examples from today’s business leaders, Jennings and Haughton divide their book into four critical topics: faster thinking, faster decisions, acceleration into the marketplace and sustaining speed.

Part I focuses on fast thinking. The authors say that leaders first must hone their ability to anticipate by looking to past cycles for clues to the next cycle. They should question “everything,” conduct “scenario-planning” workshops and develop a sense of empathy to deepen awareness. Second, leaders need to become better at spotting trends by understanding the “drivers” of change and by reaching out to customers and clients. For example, Dave Pottruck, co-CEO of Charles Schwab, is cited as saying that most of the financial service firm’s major innovations have developed from asking customers what they want. The last part of this section focuses on putting every idea through the “grinder” to come up with the one, best idea.

Part II emphasizes the importance of making fast decisions—throughout the organization. Speed becomes much easier, say the authors, when you base every decision on guiding principles and you eliminate bureaucracy. A brief pop quiz is included to test bureaucratic tendencies; watch out—your organization might flunk.

To get to market faster, the theme of Part III, organizations must “launch a crusade,” exploit their own advantages, get vendors and suppliers to move faster and institutionalize innovation. Instead of a mission, organizations need a “cause” that everyone understands and can get behind. For example, America Online’s cause is “to build a global medium as central to people’s lives as the telephone or television, only more useful.”

Part IV concentrates on how companies can sustain speed by being ruthless with resources, tracking activities that create sales—not the sales themselves—maintaining financial flexibility and staying close to customers. Jennings and Haughton direct some of the most pithy advice to leaders in the chapter “Don’t B.S. Yourself.” Leaders need to ruthlessly control delusions of grandeur, say the authors. They recommend that executives “get in touch with your inner jerk” and follow the Australian tradition of having an “off-sider”—a trusted colleague who is secure enough to challenge the boss when necessary.

The book closes with the admonition that getting rid of the “speed bumps” that slow companies down is hard work. These bumps must be “ruthlessly eliminated,” say the authors, and, “like killing a vampire, a stake must be driven through the heart to make certain they don’t resurface.”

Absolutely Fabulous Organizational Change: Strategies for Success from America’s Best-Run Companies
By Michael Mercer
Castlegate Publishers Inc., 2000,
256 pages,
List Price: $24.95
ISBN: 0-938901-21-4

Organizational change doesn’t produce results by magic, says author Michael Mercer, Ph.D. Mercer, a speaker and consultant with The Mercer Group Inc., in Barrington, Ill., is the author of four other books, including Hire the Best—and Avoid the Rest. To ensure that change brings the desired business result, he examines how 10 companies and one municipality transformed their organizations with winning results.

In Chapters 1 through 4, Mercer introduces his “three-ingredient” approach for executives and managers who plan and implement effective change:

  • Leading the change—adapting organizational change to corporate culture; creating a “big, exciting” vision; setting goals; and promoting teamwork and interdepartmental cooperation.
  • Managing employees’ problems, such as resistance and rebellion.
  • Managing their own emotions and attitudes—as leaders—during the change.

In these chapters, he relies on tests he has developed at Mercer. He also offers insights into how to hire employees who will lead the charge and examines the personalities and intelligence of leaders who can effect change. In Chapter 5, he offers examples of how successful organizations planned and carried out change.

Chapters 6 through 16 provide examples of the implementation of Mercer’s three-ingredient method at Outback Steakhouse Inc.,, Ritz-Carlton, IBM, VR Corp., Intuit, Excell Global Services, Washington Mutual, the Robert Mondavi Corp., Harley-Davidson and the city of Indianapolis. For example, Outback Steakhouse revolutionized its business by limiting service to dinner hours only—instead of trying to squeeze marginal dollars out of the lunch crowd. Instead of having general managers who are employees, Outback has “proprietors” of each restaurant. The company gives the proprietors almost total control of daily operations and a 10 percent ownership of their local restaurant in exchange for a $25,000 investment. Outback’s goal is to be a longtime restaurant chain, and its very high sales volume and low turnover suggest that it’s on the way there.

Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith set out to make dramatic changes in how the city delivered services. He eliminated hundreds of job descriptions and regulations and focused on a team approach, pulling employees from various departments to work on specific projects. Perhaps one of his most compelling ideas was to encourage “thoughtful risk-taking.” If a staff member made a mistake, the mayor’s response was, “Make a new mistake next time.” Like the corporate examples in Mercer’s book, Goldsmith began with a vision statement describing his goals for the city to become the nation’s best in terms of safe streets, strong neighborhoods and a thriving economy. By most measurements, he succeeded.

Mercer ends the book with “Secrets of Absolutely Fabulous Leaders.” The lessons to be learned from the “amazing qualities” of these leaders, he says, include: aim breathtakingly high, remember that speed is vital, persist and then persist even more, nourish your creativity, celebrate your victories and grasp how imperative it is to make improvements

“Now,” he closes, “it’s your turn.”

Impact Hiring: The Secrets of Hiring a Superstar
By Frederick W. Ball and Barbara B. Ball
Prentice Hall Press, 2001,
312 pages,
List Price: $26.00
ISBN: 0-7352-0228-1

The bad news about the labor market? Demographics, and other trends, will make it even more difficult to hire top talent. That’s why it’s more important than ever for recruiting teams to adopt new strategies and tactics to hire the best, say authors Frederick W. Ball and Barbara B. Ball.

Frederick Ball is executive vice president at Goodrich & Sherwood Associates, a New York-based human resources firm; Barbara Ball is managing director of Ball & Associates, a communications and resources consulting practice.

This new book is divided into four parts, beginning with a discussion of the changing nature of the job market, the availability of top talent and the criteria top candidates seek. Of particular interest to HR recruiters, the first section contains a number of cases that demonstrate subtle ways in which critical hires are lost.

For example, one priority-stressed hiring manager was unable to prepare for an interview and embarrassed the candidate by not even having a copy of her resume handy. In another instance, the interviewer was so busy following his own agenda that the candidate felt she was not part of the process—just an item on the checklist. In a third case, a highly sought candidate was handed off to an interview with someone who knew less about the job in question than he did. In the following interview, an executive directly contradicted everything that this candidate had been told in previous interviews.

The authors present their 12-step program to land “A” and “A+” candidates in the next three parts. Steps 1 through 3 are laid out in Part 2, “Preparing for the Interview,” which emphasizes the necessary role of senior management in setting objectives and timelines; establishing a recruiting model to fit the industry, size and culture of the company; and developing an “ideal success profile.” This profile goes far beyond a job description to focus on three core competencies:

  • The candidate’s intelligence, knowledge, skills, abilities and necessary experience to succeed.
  • The interest, motivation, energy and drive to do the job.
  • The “fit” (personal characteristics) necessary to be successful within the company’s culture.

In Part 3, steps 4 through 8 examine the actual interview process from the perspective of both the interviewer(s) and the candidate. The authors debunk the common myth that the interviewer is “in control.” In fact, they urge hiring managers to “keep the person who subscribes to that philosophy off the hiring team” because one individual—even on a large interviewing team—can torpedo a potential hire. Practical examples show how to understand the candidate’s agenda.

In Part 4, the remaining steps 9 through 12 relate to “Judgment Day,” the final negotiation in which you sell your top candidate on the job. Success means being prepared to answer the candidate’s questions and resolve any issues. At this point, the authors say, “A” candidates are beyond the issues of salary and benefits; they’re looking for a fit in career profile. Their issues usually involve:

  • Respect—whether each person they saw met them with respect and as a partner.
  • Mission, vision, values—how the organization runs in relation to its stated values.
  • “Excitement” factors—the intangibles that make an organization an exciting place to work for a particular candidate.

The book has three appendices, key interview tips, a “two-minute drill” to prepare for interviews and a sample evaluation form.

Compiled by Lynn Miller, a freelance writer and editor based in Alexandria, Va., and by Laura C. Lawson, manager of book publishing for SHRM.

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