Managing Performance and Its Assessment in the Covid-19 Context: ‘Black Box’ or ‘Pandora’s Box’?
Over my last few articles, I have dealt with a range of fundamental human resource (HR) management issues – all of which have been impacted on by the Covid-19 global pandemic. These include leadership, working from home and rewards. These areas are themselves all linked to a key dimension of business and HR in terms of assessing a person’s contributions, often via performance appraisals.
An immediate issue here is exactly who does such assessments of performance? On the one hand it could be HR practitioners themselves, with the benefits of professionalism and greater internal consistency across appraisals but at the cost of perhaps not understanding the exact job being appraised that well. On the other hand, it could be supervisors and line managers who come with the benefit that they should be aware of the job, but at the cost of greater internal inconsistency, something they find embarrassing and awkward and poorly prepare for as they may see this as another task ‘forced’ on them by HR, of little value and interfering with the ‘real’ business of managing. Working from home regimes requires even more manager skill in assessing a person’s remote contribution and performance virtually. However, even if more workplace-based regimes return, this performance-pay nexus is not really a clear, simple and easy matter. Rather, it quickly becomes apparent that it is opaque, complex and difficult.
Commonly Used Methods
Many methods and techniques are used in performance appraisals. These include the following which need to be seen within the lens of a varied range of twin tensions between: 1) control versus discretion; 2) speed versus sophistication.
- Work standards – one of the simplest, for example, number of units of output produced over a given period.
- Comment boxes – appraiser describes in their own words how the appraisee performed.
- Ranking – appraiser places appraisees in rank order, from highest to lowest performing.
- Forced Distribution – appraiser rates appraisee on a forced distribution of categories, e.g., from high to low.
- Rating scales – appraiser evaluates various dimensions of performance on a scale, eg 1-5 ranging from poor, average, good, very good to excellent to give an overall score.
- Critical incidents – uses detailed list (log) of observed incidents seen as important to performance.
- Management By Objectives – commonly a cycle of stages, from form completion, agreement and review at the end of the period.
- Behaviourally Anchored Rating Scales – defines important performance dimensions, each with critical incident anchor statements (examples of actual behaviour on the job, not general descriptions or traits), to rate against.
- Behavioural Observation Scales – this similarly uses critical incidents but with addition of how often observed engaging in the behaviour on a scale, say of 5 points ranging from almost never to almost always.
- Peer Ratings – colleagues and co-workers at same level assess each other’s performance.
- Subordinate Ratings – staff asked to rate their ‘bosses’.
- Self-Appraisal – appraisees asked to rank different aspects of their performance relative to other aspects.
- 360 Appraisal – involves as many different people as possible, ranging from subordinates to peers to managers, customers and clients.
There are problems with appraisals, both general and specific to particular methods. First, a main one is that appraisals can actually sit very uneasily with the ethos that characterises the attitudes of professionals and groups who possess specialised knowledge and skills, autonomy and independence of judgement, self-discipline and standards. This contrasts with the conflicting characteristics of appraisals of administrative rules and procedures, hierarchical authority and direction and organisational-driven standards and goals.
Second, while systemic and structural issues with appraising performance have been commented on, a less often made criticism of is that they are naïve in that they are presented simplistically in a ‘black box’. In contrast, they are actually a ‘Pandora’s Box’ as they involve people. Not only would system efficacy vary even within economies and businesses, not least due to the quality of the managers undertaking them in terms of their interest and skills, but also cross-culturally. For example, research has found cultural values, such as of collectivism, respect and esteem, all impact on performance appraisals such as 360-degree and self-appraisals.
Third, more pseudo-scientific, ‘objective’ performance management systems aim to reduce appraiser discretion, produce a ‘real number’ to allow direct and meaningful comparisons over time and with other appraisees, etc. However, the more work time and reams of paperwork these methods require does not hide the fact that they are often little more than ‘snake oil’ and often a case of the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’. For example, despite all the PR gloss and guff around performance management, tricky issues stem from the simple fact that it involves humans. This includes inter-rater variability and biases: individual (gender, ethnicity, cultural); ‘halo’ and ‘horns’ (single good/bad event influences the whole judgement); temporal (first-last event outlasts all others); strictness and leniency (consistently gives high-low marks); central tendency (gives middle ratings).
Better managers in performing performance management
To help think about possible solutions, here, we can utilise Goffe and Jones (2015a; 2015b). While their focus was on leaders, their perceptive points are equally applicable to managers undertaking performance management. Thus, we can see that effective managers are ‘authentic’ in two ways. First, they need to deploy individual strengths to engage hearts, minds and souls. Second, they need to be skilful at being themselves, even as they alter behaviours to respond to changing contexts. Furthermore, managers need to grapple with the triple tensions and questions at heart of their role. First, to show emotion, while withholding it. Second, to get close to those they are managing, while keeping distance. Third, to maintain individuality, while ‘conforming enough’. These underscore the deeply social nature of managing and also how managers remain attuned to the needs and expectations of those they are managing.
Furthermore, Goffe and Jones (2020) noted early on that the Covid-19 pandemic put a cadre of under-trained and ‘accidental’ managers under enormous pressure. Again, while they focused on leaders, their analysis is equally relevant to managers. They noted three insights. First, managing was not about one’s formal ‘position’ or ‘title’, it was about what you do. Second, it is about ‘social distance’, the idea that you should know when to encourage warmth and loyalty with teams and when to step back to keep people focused on goals, address poor performance and to give relationships ‘an edge’. Third, organisations are bound by sociability and solidarity. The shared virus threat may have strengthened societal solidarity, but the lack of face-to-face contact chips away at such important sociability.
At first sight it might seem that the assessment of someone’s performance and contribution to a business seems a simple and straightforward task to measure. However, we have seen is that it is anything but. This situation is due to not only process systemic issues, but also critically cultures – both national and organisational as well as individual – of both appraisee and critically the exact appraiser and the possible cross-cultural conundrum. Remembering this with critical thinking and top-quality relevant training about such issues and skills would repay the costs to both managers and businesses alike many fold.
Goffe, R. and Jones, G. (2015a) Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? What It Takes To Be An Authentic Leader, Harvard Business Review Press
Goffe, R. and Jones, G. (2015b) Why Should Anyone Work Here? What It Takes to Create An Authentic Organization, Harvard Business Review Press
Goffe, R. and Jones, G. (2020) ‘8 Ways The Business World Will Change After COVID’ Management Today, 9 June