Staff Performance Reviews During a Pandemic

Three ideas.

November 16, 2020

Staff performance review season is rolling around on many of our campuses. How might we think about performance reviews during a pandemic?

If you give the performance reviews, my advice is to think like a learning scientist. Ask yourself, how does what we know about learning inform the process of conducting annual performance reviews? Seeing the performance review process primarily through a learning lens may shift how you, and your direct reports, approach this exercise.

In thinking like a learning scientist about performance reviews, three big ideas stand out:

Idea No. 1: We are not all that skilled at evaluating.

The idea that we humans are poor evaluators of one another is a difficult concept to get our heads around. Perhaps we accept that other people are bad at making judgments about other people, but that we are "better than average." Hate to break it to you, but we are all pretty bad at this task.

How do we know that we are inherently flawed at evaluating others? For one thing, inter-rater reliability tends to be low. Employee performance ratings vary strongly by who is doing the evaluating. Disturbingly, there is strong evidence of systematic bias in employee rating correlated to gender and race.

Knowing that annual performance reviews are susceptible to reliability and validity risks does not mean that we should abandon the practice. Instead, performance reviews should be accompanied by training in both effective review methods (to help with reliability) and in recognizing and avoiding implicit bias (for validity). Performance reviews should be modest exercises, with potential blind spots identified and discussed.

Idea No. 2: High-stakes summative assessments correspond weakly to learning and are poorly predictive of future retention and mastery.

Annual staff performance reviews share two big problems. First, they are annual. Second, they almost always contain a quantitative summative measure.

When it comes to student learning, we know that relying on a couple of high-stakes summative tests (such as a midterm and a final) is mostly an assessment of a student's skill in test taking. High-stakes exams do a great job of testing a student's ability to take a high-stakes test and a poor job of revealing much of anything about improvement or retention or mastery. For a course, summative assessment should be combined with frequent low-stakes evaluations -- quizzes designed to support and catalyze learning, not evaluate performance.

Similarly, academic staff evaluation should be a year-round formative goal. Staff should be getting frequent constructive feedback. Waiting for an annual review to provide this information will do little to elevate performance.

If the staff performance review methodology has a summative measure -- such as "exceeds expectations" or "meets requirements" or "needs improvement" -- then that will be what the person being reviewed will focus on. A manager can work incredibly hard to write a detailed narrative of each job goal or contribution area. Unfortunately, the "grade" will draw most of the attention.

These quantifiable ratings or rankings are sometimes CYA-driven to build a paper trail for firing an underperforming employee. Sometimes these quantifiable rankings contribute to things like bonus pools or raises. Using numeric or quantifiable rankings is almost always a bad idea. Paper trails should be built on an ongoing basis, tied tightly to inadequate work performance. Bonuses and raises should be divorced from annual performance reviews.

Idea No. 3: Context matters more than we acknowledge.

A blind spot we all share is that we tend to overestimate our individual impact and underestimate the effects of context. When it comes to our successes and failures, we give ourselves too much of the credit and take too much of the blame. Our lives are governed by a combination of agency and structure and way too much chance than we'd care to admit.

This year is providing a whole lot of context. How we might go about evaluating the performance of colleagues during a global pandemic, irrefutable evidence of structural racism and a dysfunctional political system is a head scratcher.

One idea is to evaluate teams instead of individuals. Another idea is to focus on strengths instead of areas of improvement. A third idea is to use the annual employee review to only look forward, thinking through the employee's goals and how their manager can help them succeed.

Performance reviews that are context-sensitive, group-oriented, strengths-based and forward-looking can be positive for all involved. This can be when we all carve out time to think about how we are going to navigate the year ahead together. An annual performance review can help surface skills and passions and align work around these strengths and interests.

This year may allow us to move beyond the entrenched ideas of scarcity and relative rankings and treat feedback as a gift. The key is to think less like a manager and more like a learning scientist.


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