Assessing Performance: What’s Really Going On?

A key challenge we face as professionals and leaders is how to assess performance of both ourselves and our teams. We can’t be everywhere all the time to observe and as hard as I try I can’t really watch myself objectively. There isn’t an “eye in the sky” observing us and our teams to allow clear evidence for performance. So how can we get close to “objective” assessment? I don’t have any perfect answers, but here are a few ideas.

This idea crystallized for me a few weeks ago when Shannon Sharpe (retired NFL tight end, now CBS analyst) said something on the NFL pre game show that struck me.  He was referring to a former coach who used to say “I see better than I hear.” He went on to explain his coach’s observation that we say a lot of stuff, but what we do is more telling. In the NFL they say “film doesn’t lie”. You can tell me all you want to about how well you did, but how did the play/game actually go? NFL games have the full field view and you can see everything everyone did. No hiding.

In our careers this is harder to operationalize, as our every move isn’t recorded by umpteen cameras and there aren’t 15 coaches providing feedback to 54 of us (thank god!).

Let’s generalize Shannon’s point to “how do we get more fact-based in our assessment and feedback process?” and explore a few ideas.

First – Let’s acknowledge that we tend to over-estimate our own ability to decipher people, their motives and events we don’t see. Many a boss or colleague has been talked into a perception of another individual that may or may not have any grounding in reality. Research has shown how unreliable we are, even when we are eyewitness to events. (read this Federal Court brief) So how do we get more grounded in the tangible?

Second – It’s important to demand data or evidence. As I often say to students and staff, “facts are friendly”. Since we may not have been there and even if we were, our recollections may be flawed – how do we be more “fact based”? Stated differently, what is an approximation of the NFL’s “eye in the sky”?

Here are a few suggestions:

Numbers don’t lie (usually), so get some. I challenge you to make things measurable. Not everything is neatly quantifiable, but you can be creative.

At Carlson, we are doing more frequent surveys of students to understand their satisfaction. We now ask their “willingness to recommend” in the middle and at the end of each semester. Where before we rarely asked and if so, after they had left (exit survey). By then, what can you do?

I have a personal spreadsheet where I enter progress on several personal priorities, giving daily evidence of activity dating back years. Even qualitative things (mood, opinion etc.) can be quantified and the trends/patterns are often very clear.

You can’t do this for everything, but if it’s important enough, it’s worth it. As they say “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it…”

Create opportunities to personally observe. It’s dangerous to assume we understand how people or situations are. Particularly in assessing “soft skills”. There are many reasons why I think this is important, but let’s focus on one. Let’s say I have 20 years of experience and a team leader working for me has significantly less. Then it turns out one of their employees is having a performance challenge.

How can you support your staff and work on root causes if you don’t have some personal data? For example, is it a skills deficit, a supervisory communication issue or simply a personality issue? If you have some personal observations it can guide you to asking good questions and avoiding hasty action or over-reliance on another’s perspective. Perhaps your experience “sees” something different than your junior manager that can help them improve as well as the team member.

Get multiple perspectives. I always joke about human interactions resembling Rashomon, the movie about a horrible crime that is retold from each observers’ perspective. Every perspective is like a different movie. Even eyewitness testimony is increasingly suspect as we learn more about how the brain fills in details. So make sure you have more than one perspective on how things are going.

I am a big believer in taking some form of 360′ view of performance. If assessing a sales person, I want to know how their customers, sales colleagues and internal support staff see their performance.  There are several reasons why this is important. First, people may be on their “best behavior” in front of you while acting quite differently when your not around.  Second, it can cut through the “schmoozer” clutter. Finally, they may be over-emphasizing one group over another to the detriment of their overall performance.

At one point when I took over a team I implemented a 360′ assessment/feedback system that included quantitative and qualitative from clients and “shockingly” the group ranking on performance shifted radically from the prior year when discussions were all based on internal team perception of performance, with no client perspective. This helps to bring forward some of your “quiet” performers and offer feedback on tangible performance to your more self-promoting or visible performers..

Going a step further; use “blinds”. This is hard to implement, but where possible can you remove “background noise” like existing bias? Numbers and data help with this by stripping away some appearances, but don’t help with more qualitative assessment. The Voice is a pop culture version of this that leans on the findings of researchers in orchestras. It turns out that the age old view that certain instruments had a “male voice” went away when you put the performer behind a screen. You weren’t “pre-judging” anymore. Reviewers naturally ended up at more even gender distributions.

Here is an interesting piece on how business systems can become biased in similar ways:

So my wish for you is to do you best to drive to evidence based assessment. Make sure you’re seeing what’s really going on…



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