Why I don’t like performance appraisals

Why I Don’t Like Performance Appraisals

By Laura Gallaher, PhD, LHEP™

Summary Points

  • An environment of judgment hinders employee growth and development
  • Separating performance improvement from decision making is critical
  • Performance is co-created, so conversations about performance should be, too


read time: 7-10 minutes 

Why I Don’t Like Performance Appraisals

Imagine you are about to walk into a room full of people. I meet you outside and I say, “Ok, they are all in there, and they are just waiting to judge you. You ready??” Chances are, in this moment, you are not exactly in the best headspace for learning and growth. In reality, I have likely just triggered fear in you. That fear prompts you to put up some shields and defenses – ready to argue against the judgmental comments you are about to hear.


removing judgment from your work environment

Now, imagine you are about to walk into a different room. I meet you outside and I say, “Ok, they are all in there. They all are so excited to do whatever they can to help you learn and grow. You ready??” Does this moment feel different to you? Which room would you rather go into? And now, just in case you’re the rare one who would rather go into room #1, let me ask you a different question. Which room will help you become a better version of who and what you are?

Which brings me back to this – what is the point of traditional performance appraisals (performance evaluations)? Why do we do them? Well, conceivably, performance appraisals are intended to improve performance. That is the primary goal. Now you might say performance appraisals also serve to help make decisions. This is true – and I will come back to this point.

But for now, let’s keep with this idea that performance appraisals are intended to improve employee performance. For most of us, improving performance is about changing the way people think. Most of us today are not performing manual labor or doomed to waste away in a mechanistic organization that still embraces Theory X of management (Theory X suggests that people hate work, and the only way to maximize performance is to have narrow spans of control and high levels of supervision and scrutiny – sounds fun, right??). Most of us recognize that Theory Y rules the day. Humans are intrinsically motivated towards mastering skills and working autonomously. We like thinking for ourselves, we like making new mental connections (aka learning), and applying that learning for better outcomes.

improving employee performance performance appraisals not useful.png

So why, oh why, do we lean on outdated processes of assigning people a number (like a performance rating) as a means to improve performance?

To improve employee performance, we must be prepared to help people learn and make new connections. So the brain has to be in a safe, open space for learning. If you were staring at a 10’ tall bear growling and sneering while staring down at your face, your brain screams “SURVIVE!!!” and no part of you is in a safe, open space for learning. Unfortunately, when people are about to walk into a room, similar to room #1 described above, our brains and bodies react pretty similarly. Our heart rate increases, our blood pressure goes up; maybe we feel sweaty palms, or notice our breathing is more shallow. We are not in a good, learning headspace.

And let’s take a look at the leader in this situation – the one providing the appraisal. First of all, our brains are just not capable of judging and coaching at the same time. Judging requires taking a snapshot in time, whereas coaching looks over a span of time to identify and encourage growth. So even to get to a place of assigning a number to our employee – we have been in a judging headspace. And let’s assume, for this example, that we are talking about an individual who is not receiving the highest possible rating, but rather right in the middle, or “average.” If you have ever been in this situation, then you will understand what I mean when I say it feels like it is a “performance evaluation justification conversation.” You gear yourself up for all of the disappointment or possible arguments/counterpoints the employee will bring up about his rating, and you end up identifying and specifying all the things he did not do to justify why they received an average rating. Going into it, you probably feel a sense of dread, during it you likely feel a sense of defensiveness, and afterward, you’re just drained. Wow. How much learning has occurred here?

If you’re buying what I’m selling and picking up what I’m putting down, great. If you are a skeptic at this point, let me see if I can identify what is holding you up.

1 – But we’ve always done it this way!

2 – What about the people at the “top” who love getting positive appraisals? Won’t they be demotivated if we take ratings away?

3 – But if we aren’t rating people, how do we make decisions around compensation or promotions?

Let’s tackle these one at a time.

1 – But we’ve always done it this way!

Yes, I know. Change is hard. Or, more specifically, loss is hard. Change, we are fine with; it is only the loss or perceived loss that is really painful about change. So what are we losing here? We are losing certainty or at least the illusion of certainty. We are losing a clear sense of process and order, which helps us feel calm. I’d like to bring some of that back – hang tight.

2 – What about the people at the “top” who love getting positive appraisals? Won’t they be demotivated if we take ratings away?

Again, let’s identify what is being lost here. First of all, when we talk about people who are truly at the “top” (meaning they receive the highest possible rating), we are not talking about very many people. OR….if there are a lot of people at the “top” – then we have a bad case of ratings inflation, which misses the point anyway.

why i think performance appraisals are bad

So for the small percentage of people whose performance is truly at the very top of the pile – they lose a sense of reward and satisfaction for that rating of being “at the top.” But given what we know about motivation and learning, people learn faster and are more motivated when the rewards for a job well done arrive shortly after that job is well done! And I’m a big proponent of rewarding and recognizing the behavior and performance of individuals who are kicking ass – when they kick ass! So give them the positive feedback, and any appropriate bonuses at the time of their awesome performance – why wait for an annual cycle to bestow upon them your praise?

3 – But if we aren’t rating people, how do we make decisions around compensation or promotions?

Yes, decision making. Critical piece of this process. First, as I alluded to above, I believe there is a ton of value in attaching bonuses to specific accomplishments (or for retention – strategic compensation is not just about performance, but rather, it factors in broader organizational needs, like retaining specific talent). Second, I am also not advocating for abolishing any form of assessing our employees, especially for the sake of decision making. If we are looking to make decisions about raises, bonuses, or promotions, yes, let’s use tools as a leadership team to create common language for speaking about the performance of our people. But keep that in the decision making room where it belongs. In reality, people want to grow, and judgment does not help us grow.

So what do you propose we do?

This is what I propose. To really improve the performance of our people, let’s focus on helping them learn and grow. Here are the 4 necessary ingredients to help people grow:
1. Growth Mindset
2. Curiosity (Ask powerful questions)
3. Belief that performance is co-created
4. Ongoing Conversations

1 – Growth Mindset

A growth mindset means that you believe your employee can and will get better with effort and feedback. Right off the bat – if you don’t believe they can change, then you can’t help them. Notice when you catch yourself falling into a “fixed” mindset. Notice thoughts or statements like “That’s just how he is” or “I’d give her this feedback, but it won’t make a difference” – these are powerful indicators that you have fallen into fixed mindset, and you will not show up in a conversation in a way that is truly helpful.

2 – Curiosity

Curiosity means you will keep an open mind. There are two default thoughts that can happen in a situation where you want to give somebody feedback. 1 – “She just doesn’t know what I know. If I tell her this, then she will know, and her performance will improve like magic.” 2 – “I’ve told her this, but she still isn’t doing it – she must be fundamentally broken.” #2 also sounds like “She’s just lazy”; “She clearly doesn’t care” or “She’s just out to screw me over!” Very rarely are any of these true.



My favorite line here is – get curious, not furious. When somebody’s performance or perspective is not what you want it to be – get really, genuinely curious about that. What is happening for them? How do they see things? This will allow you to truly stand in their reality – and understand how they experience the world (essential for real empathy), vs. just saying “That’s not what I would do in that situation” (judgment). Being really curious means you are asking powerful, open-ended questions to understand how and why somebody is thinking about an issue or topic. Probe and ask questions – this is how they can make connections for themselves, which is the only way to truly help people shift their thinking.

3 – Belief that performance is co-created

performance is co-created

Perhaps the most common misperception of employee performance is that it is the result of the employee. It is so valuable to recognize that employee performance is co-created. Leaders will fundamentally change how they have conversations with employees when they stop thinking about an employee’s performance as a product of who that person is, and instead, realize that an employee’s performance is the result of a number of factors, especially the relationship that exists between the leader and the employee. This mindset keeps leaders out of the judgment zone – keeps leaders open to be self-accountable, and maintains the belief that growth is possible.

4 – Ongoing conversations

The concept of “Growth mindset” comes from the work of Dr. Carolyn Dweck. In the academic world, a growth mindset was called “incremental theory of development.” I bring this up because the word “incremental” is critical. Most change happens bit by bit, rather than one sweeping radical shift or growth. It is incremental because we require effort and practice to improve, which takes time. And we need to have an ongoing presence that is reinforcing our learning and growth to really elevate our performance.

ongoing work conversation

These conversations about employee performance and development cannot just happen once or twice each year. To really impact employee growth, leaders have to regularly and consistently talk to employees about their progress. And before you freak out and think, “But I can’t sit for an hour with every one of my employees every day, or even every week!” – I’m not advocating that. In reality, this type of ongoing dialogue can occur in a matter of 5 minutes or less daily. This really isn’t about a process, this is about a perspective and an approach that we take with our people. This is how real change happens. And the change starts with you.

Also published on Medium.