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How to Make Your Employee Evaluation Process Less Painful and More Valuable

“Everyone can’t be outstanding; therefore, employees should be evaluated such that they fit a normal distribution with some below average and some above average.” That’s the philosophy I was taught early in my leadership career. The general belief was that, while it wasn’t a perfect fit, ratings should resemble a bell shaped curve. Many companies still look at employees the same way, even suggesting that those who rank lowest on evaluations must go.

That’s lazy leadership.

A recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly, “Ahead of the Curve: The Future of Performance Management,” takes a deep dive into the issue of rating employees. They provide plenty of evidence that most current performance rating systems are flawed and accomplish nothing of any real value. Sometimes they are even harmful.

While many supervisors and managers would love to see evaluations go away, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. As the article’s authors point out, there are times when evaluation is necessary; for instance, identifying the high potential supervisors and managers in the company. The article also highlights some companies who have created more useful evaluation systems, often concentrating on looking to the future rather than the past and using technology to capture more current information. No matter whether your company has reached evaluation enlightenment, or still cleaves to the old ways, evaluations can be very useful in another way: helping leaders see where they need to concentrate their efforts.

Here are a few approaches leaders should take to use evaluations as a valuable tool in developing your team members.

  1. Keep good records. Evaluations tend to fall prey to the law of recency. Simply put, a leader is much more likely to remember an event that occurred last week than one that occurred last month. This also avoids problems with what I call the law of “oh #%^@.” Humans tend to be more likely to remember that time someone screwed up than the good things they’ve done. Regular coaching and a conscious effort to know your team members will also make evaluations easier.
  2. Remember, when you are evaluating your team members you are also evaluating yourself. Why does Jack consistently score low or have unfavorable comments? What have you done to remedy the problem? Yes, I know you can’t fix everyone or solve all problems, but you should be able to satisfy yourself that you’ve done everything you can to help your team members excel. This may also help make the decision to let Jack go a little easier.
  3. Communicate. If you’re concerned about a team member, let them know. Talk to them. Find out why there’s a problem and help them find a solution.

I don’t live in a leadership utopia and I know it isn’t possible to make all team members the crème de la crème. But, effective leadership means doing everything you can to give them the opportunity to rise to that level. Effective leaders find that most, if not all, of their team members don’t fit a standard distribution because they all tend to be excellent contributors. Isn’t that the way it should be?

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