Asking an employee to write a self-appraisal using the company’s appraisal form is a common performance management practice. It’s a deceptively attractive technique. An employee’s self-appraisal and rating should give the manager valuable data on the quality of an individual’s performance. It previews what to expect when the two sit down to discuss the manager’s performance appraisal. And — heavens forbid! — a lazy manager might even get some good phrases (or even paragraphs) he can cut and paste into the official appraisal form. It looks like an all-around good idea.

It’s not. It’s a bad idea and needs to be stomped out.

Asking an employee to write a self-appraisal creates a false impression of what “performance appraisal” is. When he’s asked to write a self-appraisal, particularly when the company’s appraisal form is used, it’s easy for an employee to assume that the structure of the performance appraisal process is that both the individual and the boss separately write their appraisals of the individual’s performance. They then get together, share each other’s documents, and come to a common agreement on the final appraisal.

That’s wrong. A performance appraisal is a record of a supervisor’s opinion of the quality of an employee’s work. The review meeting is a discussion, not a negotiation. Asking the individual to write a self-appraisal encourages misunderstanding by both parties.

And the misunderstandings don’t stop there. In researching my book How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals, I found study after study that consistently demonstrated that individuals are notoriously inaccurate in assessing their own performance, and the poorer the performer, the higher (and more inaccurate) the self-appraisal. Research by the consulting firm Lominger, Inc. indicates that “the overall correlation between self-ratings and performance was .00. The most accurate rater by far is the immediate boss.”

Further, in their well-known article, “Unskilled and Unaware of It,” Cornell University researchers Justin Kruger and David Dunning report that those who are incompetent performers are also incapable of assessing the difference between good and bad performance. As they put it, “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, they are left with the mistaken impression that they are doing just fine.”

One senior executive describing his company’s experience using a forced-ranking procedure to identify its A, B, and C performers told me of the same problem: “The As are afraid they’ll be considered Bs, the Bs are scared they’ll be seen as Cs, and all the Cs are convinced that they’re A players.”

In August 2007 BusinessWeek surveyed two thousand Americans in middle management positions and above, asking them the question, “Are you one of the top 10% of performers in your company?” Not one of the subgroups in the survey had less than 80 percent of the respondents answer the question affirmatively. Eighty-four percent of all middle managers reported that they were in the top 10 percent of performers in their company. Among executives—the most deluded cluster by far—97 percent of those who were asked whether they were in the top 10 percent group answered yes.

But there’s a better way. If company policy dictates that employees be asked (or ordered) to write self-appraisals, company policy must be followed. But a manager can prevent much of the mischief just described by explaining exactly what the purpose of the self-appraisal is (a way to gain information from the employee’s point of view) and how it will be used (as one of many data sources the supervisor will use to prepare the actual performance appraisal). It’s wise to ask the employee to submit the self-appraisal to the supervisor well in advance of the performance appraisal discussion so that the supervisor can use the data as an input to the official appraisal and not wait until the review meeting to find out what the employee has written. Finally, it helps to refer to the document the employee is preparing as a “self-assessment” while the document produced by the supervisor is the “official performance appraisal.”

A more effective approach is for the supervisor, at the start of performance appraisal season, to ask each direct report to send him an informal list of his or her most important accomplishments and achievements during the appraisal period. The list can be e-mailed or written on a blank piece of paper—there’s no official form. And nothing needs to be said about any problems or shortcomings or improvement needs. The manager’s sole purpose is to make sure that none of the employee’s successes are overlooked. This “good stuff” list will provide the same value as a formal self-appraisal. What’s more? It just may remove some of the stress and negativity felt about the performance appraisal process itself.

About the Author
Dick Grote is a management consultant in Dallas, Texas and the author of several books. His most recent book, How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals, was published by the Harvard Business Review Press in July 2011.