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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.