Defining Meets Expectations – Again

This is a repost from last November – an oldie but a goodie.

‘Tis the season for Performance Appraisals and managers and employees around the world are screaming NOOOOOO!  It’s not that employees don’t want and deserve feedback, it’s just the lousy way most companies go about it.  Traditional performance appraisals don’t work.  They don’t motivate employees to higher performance.  They don’t give management a fair, accurate and consistent method of comparing employees’ performance to each other.  They don’t provide good legal defense from lawsuits and charges.  Instead they take up valuable time, cause great angst, strain personal relationships and may create legal liabilities.

In “Abolishing Performance Appraisals” Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins provide some excellent research and case studies to support that the way most of us “do” performance management is broken – but there is a better way.  That way involves fewer forms, less ratings and better attention to face-to-face honest discussions.  What a concept.

But, when the dust settles, most companies will still want to have a formal performance appraisal system that results in an overall rating.  I’m okay with that, but we need to acknowledge the challenges that “rating” presents.

From a young age, we are introduced to the concept of grading.  For 12-18 years (or more) we are seeped in a process where perfect performance (or close to it) earns us an “A”, while mediocre – satisfactory – average performance warrants a “C” and failure results in an “F”.  Of course, those of us who are high achievers strive to get “A”s and are disappointed with anything else.  That goal orientation is what makes us attractive to business.

Now enter the business world where there is also typically a 5 step rating scale which feels very familiar.  But now we’re supposed to be happy when we earn the middle rating of Meets Expectations.  But wait a minute, I don’t “meet expectations”, I exceed expectations – I obliterate expectations. That’s what I do. That’s who I am.  In school everyone could get all the questions right at get an “A”.  Now you’re telling me that if I do everything perfectly I get a “C”.  That’s not fair. Maybe not, but it’s life.

It is a huge mental shift that that I have not yet found an adequate answer for.  Somehow we need to help managers and employees understand that the two scales are not comparable.  Here is how I like to define expected performance:

Meets Expectations means that an employee did everything I needed him to do, to the quality level I needed it done and in the timeframe required.  I hire good people and set high expectations so Meets Expectations isn’t “just getting by” it is being successful.  It is scoring a 95 or better on the final exam.  If everyone in the company were to meet expectations the company would achieve all of it its revenue and profit goals.  A rating of Meets Expectations should be cause for celebration and high-fives.  And yes, if you meet my expectations this year, I will raise my expectations for you next year because I expect growth and development.

Is this altruistic – or realistic?  I don’t know.  I’ve used this model for years in many companies and I continue to get pushback from managers saying “I’ve got really great people.  I can’t tell them they are average”.  I just shake my head and sigh.

Best wishes for a wonderful and rewarding Performance Appraisal season.

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