The Evaluation: Can We Humanize a Dehumanizing Process?

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The Evaluation: Can We Humanize a Dehumanizing Process?

It’s getting close to that time of year when you have to sit in your boss’s office and he or she rates your performance on a 1 to 5 scale in various aspects of your job. Oh boy.

Or perhaps you're the one who has to pull out those forms from the filing cabinet and, with great trepidation, grade those you supervise on some arbitrary scale. Ugh.

How dehumanizing. Aren’t people more than the numerical grade they receive on an annual evaluation?

Performance evaluations started out as a good idea.

According to Claire Suddath at Bloomberg Business Week (“Performance Reviews: Why Bother?”),

Performance reviews can be traced to the 1930s, when a Harvard Business School professor named Elton Mayo studied the behavior of workers in a Western Electric factory. He found that happiness and productivity were directly related to the social structure of the workplace.

Amen to that. It was a good thing when Americans realized that the workplace is actually comprised of relationships. How helpful for everyone involved to appreciate that each person’s productivity can be increased as their human social interaction is increased. It is a much more healthy work environment when people are not just "hired to do a job" but are managed and mentored as well. So meetings were set up on a regular basis between supervisors and employees to continually evaluate the situation.

So what happened that turned evaluations into a dreadful thing?

Suddath reports,

In 1950 the U.S. government institutionalized this with the Performance Rating Act, which mandated annual reviews of federal employees. Later laws would tie bonuses and salaries to these assessments.

So what started out as a humanizing turn for the better, lapsed backward into a dehumanizing act.

Matthew Kreider, a former teacher, tells the story (in The Evaluation: In the Principal’s Office) of how his annual evaluation was an extremely anxious event, where “sitting in the principal’s office” felt “like a bloody altar, where all the big, final decisions are made."

Redeeming the annual performance evaluation.

Tom DiDonato, the chief human resources officer at Lear Corporation, says that basing people’s pay on the performance review is “a terrible system.” In the Harvard Business Review blog, he wrote,

Performance reviews that are tied to compensation create a blame-oriented culture. It’s well known that they reinforce hierarchy, undermine collegiality, work against cooperative problem solving, discourage straight talk, and too easily become politicized. They’re self-defeating and demoralizing for all concerned.

So what did they do at the Lear Corporation?

We replaced annual performance reviews with quarterly sessions in which employees talk to their supervisors about their past and future work, with a focus on gaining new skills and mitigating weaknesses … The quarterly review sessions have no connection to decisions on pay. None.

Hey, you might think, not all performance evaluations are bad! And you might be right. According to Glynn Young ("The Evaluation: Five Kinds of Supervisor Performance Reviews"), at least one out of five kinds he's seen are really helpful. Glynn gives great, practical examples of how not to do performance reviews (and yes, he does have that one example of “how to do it right”).

No wonder Suddath reports,

A 1997 national survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that only 5 percent of employees were satisfied (42 percent were dissatisfied) with their companies’ review process. Even those who should be its champion—HR departments—can barely muster enthusiasm. A 2010 Sibson Consulting study found that 58 percent of HR managers dislike their own review systems.

Perhaps this is why so many are saying, “Get rid of the performance review!” as Samuel Culbert, Professor of Management and Organizations at the UCLA Anderson School of Management writes.

To my way of thinking, a one-side-accountable, boss-administered review is little more than a dysfunctional pretense. It’s a negative to corporate performance, an obstacle to straight-talk relationships, and a prime cause of low morale at work. Even the mere knowledge that such an event will take place damages daily communications and teamwork.

Culbert then lists “seven reasons why I find performance reviews ill-advised and bogus.”

So, what can we do? Miroslav Volf, the Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, writes (In his excellent book, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work),

A Christian will strive to reduce alienation in work, because all success in humanizing work anticipates—on a small scale and under the conditions of history—the eschatological new creation.

Amanda Hill, in The Evaluation: Lessons from The Apprentice, says that we can indeed give and receive good evaluations, if we do it with honesty and humility.

What can you do to transform the evaluation from that which alienates to that which humanizes? Is it even possible? Can we give people a foretaste of the fullness of God's kingdom with how we approach this annual ritual?

Featured image by Bob Robinson. Used with Permission.