Performance assessments: power vs productivity

Performance assessments, though widely used, often prove to be ineffective if looking at productivity or engagement. So why are they still being used? The concept of ‘discourse’ explains the world through the power that emanates from the use of specific language. Discourse may help us understand how performance assessments help maintain established power structures in organisations.

Performance assessment as envisaged by medieval Christians
Last Judgement by Stefan Lochner, ca. 1435

It’s that time of the year when many of us are subjected to a mid-year review of our performance. And if not now, many employees go through some form of performance assessment at the end of the year. Often organisations tie personal bonuses and incentives to the outcome of those assessments.

Pay for performance

The thinking behind that process seems obvious. An employee is hired to perform a service, but for many jobs there is no specific description of what the employee is supposed to achieve in a given year. So to make that clear, tasks and targets are ‘agreed’ and then performance against these are assessed, much like the organisation deals with any other contractor it works with. But moreover, the organisation does not only want its employees to just do their job, they ideally want them to outperform in return for a reward. This is a logical outcome of the ‘economic narrative’ that explains relationships between employees and their employing organisations as an exchange of labour for money, which I previously discussed here.

Employment as described by the ‘economic narrative’
Time clock in a factory, ca. 1920-1935, artist unknown, collection Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
Caring means sharing

One could argue that treating employees as contractors impairs the positive effects from the ‘community narrative’ discussed in the same article referenced above. The community narrative explains the relationships of the employees with their employing organisation as collaboration based on shared values and a sense of belonging together. According to this narrative employees contribute to the best of their ability if they feel a strong sense of community. The attitude to performance is different: mutual care instead of an exchange of rights and obligations.

Are collaborating ants so successful because they’re in for a big bonus?
Ant bridge crossing, by Igor Chuxlancev (CC BY 4.0)
Performance assessments don’t work?

It turns out that the performance assessment process is often significantly flawed yielding counter-productive outcomes. An excellent article explains this quite comprehensively (9 Research-Backed Reasons to Rethink Your Annual Employee Evaluation). Like one former colleague of mine wryly observed of the performance assessment mechanism in our company: “It seems to be designed to motivate those already motivated and demotivate further those who are already demotivated.”

Discourse: the power of the language of power

So why do organisations continue to use performance assessments? Perhaps one explanation could be found in a corner not too distant from the community narrative and this has to do with the distribution of power in an organisation. It goes too far to examine all the intricacies of power in organisations. I would like to focus on one particular aspect of it, namely that which the French philosopher Michel Foucault has defined as discours or discourse in English.

Explained in simple terms, discourse is the body of language that is created to assign meaning to the world. But the way we assign words, i.e. labels, to different objects and phenomena, is not static. It varies over time. These words, this language, usually come with a normative aspect, they have a certain connotation: they differentiate between good and bad – they express a certain moral. For example, in the late 1960s and early 1970s ‘self-expression’ was very much in fashion and much of what happened in the world was evaluated through that lens. Ten years later after the deep recession of the early 1980s the world had changed: making money was the dominant virtue – “greed is good” as the main character Gordon Gekko stated in the 1987 film Wall Street. Even though Gekko was a caricature of the era, the discourse had shifted.

The way the discourse is formed can be very clear, but it can also be very subtle, such that one might hardly realise that certain terminology or symbols imply a moral judgement. This becomes clear when long-standing symbols suddenly are subjected to re-evaluation. This is what was seen recently in the toppling or removal of statues of people from the European colonial age. What is always associated with a shift in discourse is a shift in (relative) power from one (sub)group to the other. The newly emerging power coins its own language, symbols and buzzwords as the currency of change.

Change of discourse: fallen hero?
Columbus statue toppled by protestors in Minnesota, USA in June 2020
Discourse in organisations

But discourse shifts don’t always have to be dramatic world stage events. If the CEO of your company first said that the organisation should become ‘lean’ and then a year later says that ‘customer satisfaction’ is top priority, these words get a different meaning and relative importance. Whatever word from the BS-bingo list is fashionable becomes a mantra and a yard stick to measure all kinds of processes and proposals against. And also coworkers’ attitudes and behaviour …

Discourse in performance assessments

So what does this have to do with performance assessments? Well, if discourse is about power, assessing performance through the use of subjective language can easily become an exercise in confirming the established power structure and aligning individual employees to that (and eliminate subversive elements).

In my experience, many people have jobs in which it is very difficult to define what constitutes ‘good’ performance upfront. Good performance then quickly becomes something that is dependent on attitude and how that is perceived by your line manager. And that is why many performance assessments are not solely focussed on tangible deliverables. They also look at ‘behaviours’ as evidence of the (non-)existence of the desired attitude.

By now you can probably guess where this is going. The way that we perceive, interpret and judge attitudes through behaviours is almost entirely subjective. But what’s more, the way in which attitude and/or behaviour is often described in performance agreements, or however they are documented, is often subject to the discourse in fashion. For example, in my 2016 tasks it said:

“Enforce a clear operating model, drive delivery and embed Company ways of working (integration, collaboration, simplicity, focus, transparency and ‘inside out behaviours’. Deepen commercialism at the front lines, deal making culture and strengthen clarity on roles and responsibilities.”

What on Earth is meant by ‘inside out behaviours’ or a ‘deal making culture’ and how should that be assessed objectively? Based on what should I demonstrate ‘achieving’ this ‘task’, other than through ‘staging’ something that demonstrates that I’m loyal to the discourse?

These terms identify what is in fashion, without detailing what is expected in every specific situation as this is impossible of course. Hence, assessing performance against these has to be left open to interpretation of the line manager. And that is how whoever uses the terminology of the discourse has an opportunity to informally exercise power. What often happens at performance assessments is that those who simply talk-the-talk or expound on how wonderful the emperor’s new clothes look are rewarded. Whilst those who have a different opinion or deviant character are penalised.

So performance agreements and subsequent assessments provide an opportunity to align the rest of the organisation to the discourse in fashion. And thus they provide an opportunity to align the organisation to those who determine what discourse is in fashion, namely the established leadership at the time. In these cases it’s not about performance, but about loyalty.

A bad Christian? “It’s not about performance, but about loyalty.”
Anneken Hendriks, bound to a ladder, burnt in Amsterdam in 1571 [by Catholic authorities for heresy by joining the Anabaptists], image by Jan Luyken, ca. 1683 – 1685
Discourse depends on the leadership’s morality

So the reason that many organisations maintain performance assessment processes even though they may not benefit productivity or engagement, might be that they are not meant to serve productivity or engagement. They may be meant to reinforce a certain internal power structure.

Power is not good or bad in and out of itself; it’s a given factor in any interaction between people. It’s what you do with power that determines it’s moral value. The way power is used in organisations starts with the moral views active at the top of the organisation’s hierarchy. Important choices are to be made on that topic – perhaps the most important ones a leader can make. This is what I intend to examine in one of my next articles.

“It’s what you do with power that determines it’s moral value.”
Lady Justice, picture by Mylius 2011

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7 thoughts on “Performance assessments: power vs productivity”

  1. Good one Rik,
    One of the best articles so far. I want to collect all your articles and share them with my children as they are filled with practical knowledge based in keep observation. I do see and agree with your logic; it’s just that the world is the way it is because of human nature and that is very hard to change. The power struggle will always be there, much of life in its naked truth is about competition for survival and procreation.
    What alternative method you propose to rate employees? I believe that as you mention it all starts at the top. Recognizing good work done and ideas from those who generated them without regard for ones personal benefit is key. What we do is provide feedback on a regular and constant basis. If you do good work, it will be a pat on the back right away or on the opposite a discussion of how expectation was not met. There is no need to wait for the sacred performance review to get feedback. Yet there is no escaping that a bonus or a promotion must come from my collective perspective of your performance however rightly-or-wrongly I may disturb that in my mind.
    There are obvious truths in your message about the exertion (or miss-appropriation) of power by line managers and that many yearly tasks are not clear. I’m convinced that this purposeful unclarity is because managers do not know with certainty what they want you to do. As a manager in a small company it is impossible for me to assign concrete tasks that must be accomplished for each employee for the entire coming year. The idea is that we have roles in the company and the tasks for those roles must be accomplished. The general role stands while the tasks roll with the punches with the day-to-day business. I have found myself changing light bulbs, organizing rocks, and installing an extractor in the bathroom because the job had to be done. Nothing wrong with that.
    Awesome Rik, I really enjoy your posts. Please keep them coming.

    1. Jorge, thanks for your generous compliments and your elaborate comments and observations. You are right that organisations and their managers still face the task of managing performance. But I don’t think we need to officially rank employees. I do think it would make a big difference if we don’t tie the outcome of individual performance assessments to individual rewards directly. So I think performance is best managed with a weekly or so interval in the course of normal business management. It may be good to take a broader perspective on performance and where the employee fits in the organisation and their personal development once a year. But I would decouple that from the handing out of bonuses or (direct) salary increases. An alternative approach would be to tie bonuses and salary increases to team/company performance and/or individual contributions to single projects (i.e. ad hoc rewards). Thanks again for your comments!

  2. Rik, enjoyed your article. Have you tried ‘the age of heretics’ by Art Kleiner? It’s quite good. For example on one metric for performance ranking – “…what happens when a manager becomes dependent on return on investment (ROI)… Managers who used it as their primary yardstick would always give a higher ranking to the projects that got good ROI figures. Those projects would get the bulk of investment. In theory, that meant the company would prosper—fewer “dogs” and more “stars” would be supported. (Hayes and Abernathy singled out the growth-share matrix, and its emphasis on short-term results, as a particularly pernicious influence.) In practice, a dependence on ROI meant that risky initiatives, long-term projects, and anything driven by a manager’s personal aspiration or care would be shoved into the background. “

    1. Many thanks Joe. I didn’t know that book. I do know the saying “what get’s measured, get’s managed”. So it seems from your comment that this is what that proves yet again, as what doesn’t get measured, might subsequently be ignored and/or neglected altogether. Cheers, Rik

  3. 2 comments:
    1) Behaviours are indeed important as mentioned and at the same time hardly measurable. That’s why as a team lead you have to ask multiple stakeholders about a staff members behaviours to be able to judge. What is good/bad behaviour is indeed subjective, but should be measured against what your company culture is. his is something you will see and contribute to on a daily basis. Also subject to chnage of course.

    2) The targets in the article are indeed a bit undefined. Question is if that is a problem. Why should targets be around a ticklist. They can also present the “Intend”. It’s up to yourself to find ways to operationalize ways to achieve this.

    1. Many thanks for your comments Poul! Your comments help bring out the constructive side of performance assessments. I think much depends on how you use performance assessments. If you just use it as a frame to have a regular wider (constructive) discussion about performance and longer term aspirations it can work. But if you tie it directly to reward and punishment (i.e. absence of/lower reward vs your peers), which is often the case, it easily becomes about ‘alignment’ to the top, which is counterproductive.

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