Don’t Be Too Quick to Generalize About Employees’ Performance

Don’t Be Too Quick to Generalize About Employees’ Performance

At the Wall Street Journal last month, Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli challenged executives to think differently about their approach to employee performance and potential. The core of his argument is that these talent processes are less dynamic than the speed of the business. Business needs change, who you work with is different from project to project, expectations evolve, and personal circumstances or other factors can affect an employee’s potential contribution at any given time. Rarely, he argues, is an employee always an A, B, or C player:

Broad categories miss a lot of subtleties, so people’s true talents and strengths often get ignored. They also make it hard to recognize when people improve or stumble in their performance. The notion that good performers are always good also contributes to what psychologist Edward Thorndike called a halo effect, the mistaken belief that if you were an A player in one thing, you will be an A player in another. …

That means we assume A players perform better because they have more ability or talent than the others. But we don’t consider that, for instance, they might have gotten a string of easy projects where they could shine. Or maybe we think they’ve done a good job simply because we expected them to do a good job. Likewise, we assume that people performing poorly in their jobs are C players rather than people who are struggling with problems outside of work or have just been given an impossible assignment. Or again, maybe we judged them as performing worse than they actually did because we expected them to do poorly.

The cornerstone of his advice to solve this very real problem is to assess employees more frequently and objectively. He’s right about that, but this is just one of three things organizations need to do in order to improve their performance management strategies. They must also:

  • Expand the number of people from whom managers receive feedback. Performance today is more collaborative, interconnected, matrixed and horizontal. In order to better determine the contributions that someone is making, managers need to ask more people.
  • Make the feedback more forward looking. Rather than simply telling an employee how well they performed in the past, the best managers use past performance as a vehicle for talking about what they should be doing differently in the future. This approach lets managers use performance feedback as a development and evaluation tool.

To be clear, Cappelli is not suggesting that organizations get rid of their performance ratings or their high-potential programs; rather, he’s warning against categorizing employees as high or low performers based on what might be incomplete information. Although some organizations have gotten rid of performance scores as part of an overhaul of their performance management systems, CEB research has found that removing scores generally hurts performance and engagement by making it more difficult for managers to give productive and accurate feedback, and for employees to know where they stand.

There are a lot of ways performance management can be made better, but organizations making changes in this area need not be afraid of scoring employees’ performance. For more details on how to improve your performance management processes, CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can look here.