Abolishing Performance Appraisals
Authored by Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins
Reviewed by Steve McIntosh, PhD
(from the January 2001 edition of HR Magazine)

    The research is clear. The outcome is consistent. We know with certainty that the most powerful leadership tool for improving productivity and increasing employee satisfaction is regular, frequent, balanced performance feedback. Emerging data shows that feedback is a key driver for continuous learning, creativity and ultimately customer satisfaction.

"The material is very well written. The authors style is crisp and clear, making it unusually readable."

How then does something with such potential for success create so much dissatisfaction, lowered morale and genuine disruption in the workplace? Any of us who have been on the giving or receiving end of performance appraisals sadly know the answers: the transition from theory to application is disjointed and the practices incorporated to facilitate and support feedback are flawed.

    Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins make yet another attempt to help us understand why things go wrong in the performance appraisal process. They readily admit that Abolishing Performance Appraisals is one of numbers of books slicing and dicing the practice of performance appraisal. But there are a several things that set this effort apart from similar pieces of work.

     The material is very well written. The authors style is crisp and clear, making it unusually readable. Three discrete sections bring logic and order to an encumbered and sometimes confounding management system by reviewing the traditional causes of failure, examining the core reasons for conducting appraisals, and describing the transition to alternatives.

     From the beginning we are warned that the objective of the book is not to provide solutions. Rather, the goal is to reformulate our thinking and modify our assumptions so that we are prepared to forge a new environment. In this work culture, partnership is the cornerstone, supervisors have the latitude to provide feedback in the form most appropriate to their individual situations, and employees take full responsibility for themselves.

     While it sounds Pollyannaish at best and completely naove at worst, the authors attack the issues with such energy and enthusiasm its difficult to dismiss their approach out of hand.

      Coens and Jenkins say their research indicates that performance appraisals are conducted for one or a combination of six reasons: improvement, coaching/guidance, feedback/communication, compensation, staffing/development and termination/documentation. Herein lies, they continue, the fundamental problem  using one process as the delivery vehicle for so many complex activities is not only impractical, it is dysfunctional. And, they continue, no amount of tinkering can solve the problem. As such, they dismiss efforts at using 360s, performance management, MBO, etc, as futile, because the only true solution is wholesale abandonment of performance appraisals.

     The chapters analyzing the relationship of performance appraisals with the six functional areas are especially well done. In fact, they are so compelling and the authors so ardent at times that you want to say, OK, I surrender. I promise never to use performance appraisals again. And just to keep you interested, at the end of each chapter, the authors cleverly conduct a comprehensive review of traditional assumptions and layout alternative assumptions that amplify and clarify their thinking and logic.

     Section three sets out a 14-step methodology for making the transition from traditional performance appraisals to alternatives. This is the most disappointing part of the book. Even though the sequence is nicely designed and carefully constructed, there is no resolution. The authors justify this lack of closure by saying that there is no existing model that resolves the issues they have identified. They state that each individual organization must find its own answer, and they warn this is a time, effort and cost intensive process that cannot be shortcut. The combination leaves the reader frustrated.

     In their defense, the authors do give ample warning about the endpoint. So if approached with that knowledge, Abolishing Performance Appraisals positions itself as a useful addition to the performance appraisal literature.

Dr. Steve McIntosh is president of Tartan Consulting and is a founding partner of the Southern Leadership Institute, headquartered in Bonita Springs, Florida.

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