Given the power to change anything about how performance is managed in the US, I’d start with — well, just about everything. But if you asked me for one word I’d love to eliminate from the performance management lexicon, it would be “expectations.” That word causes more confusion, more discontent, and more inconsistency than any word that hasn’t already been eliminated for reasons of political correctness.
What’s the problem? Well, it’s fundamental. “Expectations” is not grounded in context. It never is. No one knows what expectations are, and no one knows what standards to apply. Everyone applies their own rules, which vary from supervisor to supervisor and from person to person. Take the following example as illustrative of the reality in most organizations:
Sally Smith was a marginal hire in a job that the organization believes requires about three years of experience and practice to develop true competence. Bill is going to be the direct supervisor, and wasn’t involved in the hiring decision. Amy, the “manager,” didn’t really want to hire her, but Tom the “director” thought Sally had incredible potential. Ellie the HR Director doesn’t have an opinion, and her job is to make sure everyone is treated fairly.
One year later, the first performance appraisal is completed, and it turns out that Sally has developed in one year to the level that takes most people two years. She is still not at the point where the organization wants her to be, to be “fully functioning” on the job, but she’s clearly seen as a rising star. Let’s assume the dreaded 5 point “far below expectations” to “far exceeds expectations” scale is used. How will Bill, Amy and Tom rate her, and how will Ellie respond?
- Bill – Rates Sally a 1 – “Far Below Expectations.” Bill doesn’t buy the whole “three years” thing. It only took him about six months to learn the job when he started doing it himself 20 years ago. If he could do it, so could anyone else. If you can’t be doing the entire job in a year, you should be fired.
- Amy – Rates Sally a 5 – “Far Exceeds Expectations.” Amy’s expectations of Sally were, frankly, pretty low. She didn’t want to hire her in the first place, but Sally wowed her. She learned in one year what it usually takes people two years. She has no doubts about her now, and truly, Sally has far exceeded any expectations that Amy had about her.
- Tom – Rates Sally a 3 – “Meets Expectations.” Tom was vindicated. Sally has done exactly what Tom expected of her. He has high expectations, and she met them.
- Ellie – Thinks Sally is a 2 – “Below Expectations.” Unlike everyone else, Ellie looks at it from the perspective of the organization; she thinks Sally appears to be doing really well, but it’s clear that she can’t do the entire job yet, and no one has suggested she can. However… when she thinks about it, it seems like a kind of negative rating to give to someone who is making everyone so happy with her progress.
What is the right rating? Ellie is “right,” in terms of how performance should actually be managed, but she recognizes that the message that she would give would certainly be seen as a negative. In an “expectations” system, every one of those ratings was “correct,” from a certain point of view.