There’s a bogus belief that gets in managers’ way when they evaluate performance. That myth says that in order for an appraisal to be objective, assessors must have quantifiable metrics to support their assessment judgment.
That’s just not true. What is a performance appraisal? The straightforward answer: A performance appraisal is a formal record of a manger’s opinion of the quality of an employee’s work.
The operant word, of course, is “opinion.”
Writing a performance appraisal requires managers to be fair, unprejudiced, and objective. But the fairness requirement doesn’t mean that you’re restricted only to using quantitative, numerical metrics in making your assessment. Your opinions, feelings, and judgments are what the appraisal process demands.
Managers must make judgments even when—or particularly when—all of the facts are not available. In every other area of managerial activity, the ability to make good decisions in spite of limited and perhaps even conflicting data is what they get paid for. Only in the case of performance appraisal do we feel unnerved about the fact that examples, experience ,and judgment — not quantitative and provable metrics — are used.
Insisting that there must be quantifiable metrics can lead us astray in accurately evaluating performance. For example, how would you evaluate the performance of a translator? The obvious, easy, and wrong answer: the number of documents translated. But while that aspect of performance is easily quantified, it ignores what’s genuinely important—the ability to capture nuance.
The ability to capture nuance isn’t hard to evaluate accurately. Just take a document written in a foreign language and give it to two translators. Then take their two translations to a native speaker and ask, “Which one got it right?” The native speaker will read the two documents and then comfortably say, “This one translates each word accurately. But this one—this one captures what the writer really intended.” That evaluation is certainly objective but there’s nothing quantifiable about it.
If you have access to numerical measures of the quantity of work a person did or if you have some quantitative index of quality to support your evaluation—terrific! Use them. But as long as you can provide solid examples to back up your assessments and ratings, then your appraisal is objective, even if quantitative measures aren’t available.
And despite the myth that objectivity requires metrics, people generally want to know their supervisor’s opinion of their performance. They want honest answers to their most important questions: How am I doing? Are you pleased with my work? Do I have a bright future here? Numbers alone can’t answer those questions.
Don’t get hung up trying to find quantitative metrics to support every judgment in a performance appraisal. Remember what Albert Einstein said: “Not everything that counts can be counted. And not everything that can be counted counts.”
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.