I was speaking to a colleague the other day. He said that the senior management at his company decided to include the company’s values in the next performance review. The values had been introduced three years before. But except for some plaques and posters not much had been done with them.
Here are two of the values: integrity, and excellence. The company’s other values are similar. These are fine sentiments; but they’re not fine for a performance review. That’s because there’s nothing unique about them. They’re aspirational values. Every company wants employees who are honest and do the best job they can. And every employee (or most, anyway) wants to believe he or she is honest and excellent. But to be useful on a performance review, the values have to be framed in a way that emphasizes how they should be applied at this specific company.
Use Core Values
Unlike aspirational values, core values reflect an organization’s culture and its uniqueness. For example, a company with responsiveness as a core value, makes decisions quickly. That can mean, for example, that there are not multiple levels of approvals before a project or purchase can go forward. This works well in some organizations, not all. And so assessing an employee on that in a performance review would be meaningful.
The primary purpose of a performance review is to assess performance. To do that accurately, performance criteria should describe observable behavior – usually what someone does or says or both. If it’s observable you can measure it.
Being responsive is an observable behavior. You can tell when people are responsive and when they’re not. You can set standards for how quickly someone should respond, the type of behavior they should exhibit and the situations where responsiveness is required. In other words, you can establish specific performance expectations.
That makes it possible to accurately rate someone on responsiveness during the performance review.
You can’t do that with integrity or excellence.
Aspirational Values and Performance Reviews
Excellence is the “5” on a 5-point scale. It’s an absolute. And it is fine to aspire to. But it’s usually unattainable. Most people are not excellent most of the time. That means most people usually are just sort of excellent.
Integrity is similar. Let’s imagine a manager using a five-point scale to evaluate an employee on integrity. Let’s further imagine that the manager wants to rate the employee “3” – meets expectations.
The reality is most people shade the truth to avoid difficult situations. Some might interpret that as being dishonest or misleading. Some might interpret it as lacking the courage or integrity to say what needs to be said. A “3” could be a reasonable rating – if it were about behavior.
But integrity is about more than behavior. Integrity is a moral principle. A “3” out of “5” on integrity suggests that someone is sort of honest, sort of ethical, and sort of has integrity. A “4” out of “5” would be better. But actually, anything less than a “5” out of “5” suggests the individual lacks integrity and invites an argument, maybe more.
It’s easiest to give everyone a “5” out of “5,” which makes the exercise meaningless. And that’s what most managers will do.
The way out is not to assess people on excellence or integrity. No matter how you define them, the words have a larger meaning that can cause unnecessary confusion and conflict. Instead, create items that reflect specific aspects of those two values that are important for effective performance.
For excellence, some items could include:
- accuracy, completeness, and timeliness
- not taking shortcuts that could compromise quality
- providing input to improve processes
For integrity, some items could include:
- taking ownership of decisions
- providing feedback that is honest and not judgmental
- maintaining confidentiality
Each of these items are observable and could fit easily in categories that already are part of the performance review. While taking this approach will minimize or eliminate the focus on a set of aspirational values, it provides a way for managers give specific, meaningful, and actionable feedback. And that, after all, should be the goal of a performance review.
- If company values are on the performance review, it’s essential that they can be assessed in terms of specific performance expectations. Core values, like responsiveness, work that way. Aspirational values like excellence and integrity by themselves aren’t suitable for a performance review unless you identify behavior that demonstrates those values. And even after you have identified specific behavior, use of terms like excellence and integrity is still problematic.