Tuesday, July 14, 2009


It may be the most unpleasant thing any of us does: evaluate those who work for us. It is also probably the most important thing we do. How then should we approach evaluations?

First, let’s set some ground rules: don’t use a screwdriver to drive nails. By that I mean evaluations are for evaluating the performance of someone. They are not recommendations for promotion. If you conflate the two you will get a less than optimum answer (and in the end, probably a poor answer – see below.)

There are those who say that evaluations are a negative influence on the organization, and if used improperly, they are. So, the second thing to remember is that the point of an evaluation is not to simply tell someone that they aren’t doing well. The real worth of the evaluation is to use it to improve someone’s performance. If you are not using it for that purpose, you - and it - are already negative influences.

Every member of your organization is a member of your team. Consider them as such. Imagine if you were the manager of the Boston Red Sox. You don’t critique a new pitcher by telling him how poorly he is doing. Rather, you watch his performance, his warm-up, his practice, how he pitches when ahead, how he pitches when behind, you take notes, and then you talk to him. If he is trying to throw sliders and the other team keeps hitting his slider, you need to work with him to find another pitch, or work to improve his slider. Maybe he is rushing his pitches; maybe he gets distracted when there are base-runners. You, and the pitching coach and the catchers and the older pitchers work with him to make him a better pitcher. You invest in him to make him better because making him better makes your team better.

It is EXACTLY the same at your company. Just as with a baseball team, if you have someone who doesn’t fit the company, who isn’t going to help you win, you need to let them go, no matter how good they are. But, if they fit, if they can help, then you need to invest in them so that they do help.

The evaluation process then is a way to identify strong points and weak points in anyone’s performance. It is your job to not only identify the strong points and the weak points, but to also take advantage of that knowledge, to the benefit of both the organization and the employee. Where it is possible to train or educate someone to eliminate a weakness, do so. Where it is not possible to train or educate them, then you need to realign tasks as much as is possible so that your people play as much as possible to their strengths and, as much as possible, avoid their weaknesses.

Which leads to the third point. If one of your employees is repeatedly evaluated with the same weaknesses it’s not their fault, it’s yours. If the same issues keep arising, you should have done something about it. That you haven’t isn’t their fault as they are still saddled with the same responsibilities, responsibilities assigned by you.

Let me repeat the three key points about evaluating your people:

1) Evaluations are NOT to be used to recommend people for promotion or bonuses or whatever. This is stated first because it is the major mistake most organizations make when it comes to evaluations. When you conflate evaluations and promotion/bonus recommendations, you will first end up short-changing both, and eventually you will find yourself without a tool to improve performance.
2) Evaluations should be used to improve individual performance, and eventually team performance.
3) Evaluations are as much about your performance as the person being evaluated. If your system doesn’t recognize that, then there is something wrong with your system. A good evaluation system should identify individual strengths and weaknesses and allow you to improve the overall performance of the team.

I’ll close with a warning. Many different management systems want to establish metrics for every facet of the organization. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. But, there is a great danger if you let the metrics become all-consuming. This is particularly true if you become caught up in meeting your quarterly forecasts. This can drive you to make sure you make ‘today’s numbers’ irrespective of future costs to the organization. We have all seen executives squeeze every last drop of ‘blood’ out of an operation in order to meet their numbers and then depart in triumph, only to pass a broken organization on to the successor. In many cases their behavior was prompted by evaluation systems that rewarded ‘meeting the numbers’ irrespective of costs. It is better to have no evaluation system at all then one that rewards breaking the back of the organization.


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