First, we all need to forget about 360-degree feedback, at least for performance-appraisal purposes. Certainly, 360-degree feedback may have a place—a minor place—in helping people get a better understanding of their development needs. But it has no place in conventional performance appraisal. To allow anonymous employee assessments into part of the formal evaluation tool does more than just encourage biased and self-serving responses—it poisons the entire well in terms of the original objective. It is particularly inappropriate to tie pay, promotions, development opportunities, and terminations—the things that a strong appraisal system controls—to anonymously provided assessments. The issue is not whether underlings and co-workers can provide relevant information. They can. The issue is whether they should be allowed to do so in a context where they cannot be held accountable.

What we need to do is add some element of forced ranking to our performance-management processes. Forced ranking requires senior managers to look over the organizational talent pool and, based on their performance and potential, identify the organization’s top talent (the A players), the solid-performing middle (the B players), and those bringing up the rear (the C players). Forced ranking can drive the truth into performance management, since not only does it force managers to identify the organization’s most and least talented members (and in the process provide the organization with useful data on managers’ ability to spot and champion talent), it offers independent verification of performance-appraisal data, something everyone agrees is important.

Conventional performance appraisal involves an absolute comparison — how well did the individual perform against the goals and key job responsibilities and competencies that were agreed at the start of the year? Forced ranking requires a relative comparison—how well did this individual perform compared with how well other people in similar jobs performed? Both questions are important to ask to get a complete view of a person’s performance.

Sure, there are challenges involved in implementing a forced-ranking system. Some employees and some managers, particularly those with low standards, don’t like it. And it’s inevitable that some mistakes will arise—you’re bound to miss a few late bloomers and overrate a few glib duds.

But combining a forced-ranking system with a conventional performance-appraisal system, with senior managers holding their juniors accountable for excellence in performance management (just as they hold them accountable for excellence in all the other parts of their jobs), will produce an organizational climate in which people know what’s expected of them, are held to high standards, and know exactly how well they’re doing. Sounds like a great place to work!


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.