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The Few And The Brave

Posted by Chuck Csizmar | Posted in Articles, Universal Compensation | Posted on 29-08-2017

Tags: , , , , ,


Different Is Beautiful, by epicnomWhen it comes to the design of performance management programs most companies play it safe.  Right smack in the middle of their assessment scale is the word “average”; or perhaps they use “meets expectations,” or “satisfactory” or the like.  Each term signals the same assessment, though – middle of the road.  And isn’t that where managers expect most employee to fall?  After all, the height of a distribution curve peaks at “average.”

Surveys show that over 80% of organizations using a rating scale to assess employee performance have chosen either a three, five (most popular) or seven scale system.  The common denominator of each is a middle rating category, the average.

But what if you chose not to have a middle rating in your performance review process?  What if you told managers that they couldn’t call anyone “average;” that employees would have to be designated as either better or less than that?

No Can Do

Which is exactly what you’ll hear.  Many managers will balk at having to choose between rating someone as either what they consider an under or over performer.  That’s the way they’ll see the decision-making process – as forcing them to select what is for them an incorrect rating.  Because they think the majority of employee performance falls between those ratings.  Because they think most folks are average, doing the job that they were hired to perform.  And “average” is a safe word.

Other organizations have decided that they want their performance review process to couple development dialogue into the conversation and encourage employees going forward.  These feel that in order to achieve that goal they need to better describe how their employees have been performing.  Which means that they take away the middle ground.

Perhaps there’s a different way to look at the rating process, a less “easy button” approach that doesn’t provide a default selection for the manager.  Perhaps there’s a tactic that might help drive employee performance – instead of simply reacting to it.

What if the performance review process asked a different question?  Instead of assessing how an employee’s performance compared to a common-man average, what if the question became whether the employee was “successful” in their job?


Here’s a word that implies achievement, the gaining of favorable results.  Compare that against what the dictionary would describe as common, ordinary, typical – the average.  An argument can be made that an “average” employee is not necessarily a successful one and that a successful employee is a better performer than an average one.  For the good of your business, I’d suggest that you’d want to encourage more successful employees than average ones.

A common management view of “average” employees is that “we’re not going to get where we want to go with this group.”  The desired goal of a high performing organization will not be achieved on a foundation of common, ordinary and typical employees.

Needs Improvement

What if, instead of saying an employee’s performance was below average (usually seen as just below the middle ground) you viewed effort more positive, saying that the employee was “on track” though not quite yet successful?  This can be a different, less negative perspective.  If you want your performance review process to help drive performance, then encouraging employees (“you’re almost there, keep it up”) is a better strategy than negativism.  And if you believe that performance recognized is performance repeated, then you want to make sure you focus on a glass that’s half-full, not half-empty.

Taking A Risk

Designing a performance review process without a middle rating for your performance scale is taking a risk, which is no doubt why most companies steer clear.

  • Too many employees could be ranked “successful,” merely to avoid the negative connotation of “needs improvement.”
  • Over-rated employees might be given the wrong message, inflating their perception of a performance that doesn’t deliver the same effort to the organization.
  • The bottom two (of four) rating categories would see little use as “Needs Improvement” retains its strong negative connotation.
  • The organization wouldn’t have sufficient merit increase monies to reward the great majority of employees rated “successful”  – thus leaving little room (or motivation) for lower ratings.

Such an environment could weaken your performance review process to the point of being ineffective – almost pointless.  Those rated less than “successful” would likely fall below 10% – 20% of your workforce – which for most organizations is not a true reflection of performance.

Many of the ratings might even become reluctant manager “gifts” meant not so much to recognize performance but rather to avoid facing uncomfortable conversations with disappointed employees.

This is where management training, coupled with a careful and continuous monitoring of the performance review process, would be key to success.  When you don’t provide a default “easy button” you need to make sure that the decision-makers not only understand the rationale of the four-scale rating system but follow it.

So kudos to those with a four scale performance rating system.  They’re trying to walk the talk of performance management and pay-for-performance.  I wish them luck.

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