Tis the season….for performance appraisals

Guest Post by Bill Bellows

Some years ago, I read an article on performance appraisals and was inspired to contact the columnist in response to their invitation for feedback.    While I did not receive a reply, here is my feedback, which may inspire others to seize a moment in the coming months (or years) to offer their feedback to a friend, a co-worker, or a columnist.

John – I have just read your column on performance reviews, with a reference to Dr. Deming’s teachings.    As you have noted, Dr. Deming was not at all a fan of annual performance reviews.   As a student of Deming’s management theory, I would like to provide you with added feedback on his views.   In addition to the fallacy of basing the feedback on one annual meeting, Dr. Deming also appreciated that the performance of any employee cannot be seen as separate from the system in which he or she operates.   For example, the performance of a student on an exam cannot be separated from the performance of his/her instructor or his/her classmates.  Or, the performance of a quarterback on a football team cannot be seen as separate from the abilities of his teammates to perform their roles.   Just as scoring a touchdown is done as a team, against a team, education is done as a team, and so is everything in life, for we do not live nor exist alone.

Dr. Deming’s admonition was that we seek to see the greater system in which everything operates and, in doing so, realize that teamwork is always a factor in any performance, not solely the person or part we are observing.   I will add another example, from Dr. Deming’s thinking in a classroom, where he spent countless hours between 1950 and 1990 at New York University.   Whenever he gave exams, or asked questions in class, he realized that the answers he received were not only measuring the students, but also his ability to convey ideas.   He used the replies he received on exams and in the classroom to adjust his teaching.   Instead of believing he could separate the students from their much greater education system, he simply gave his students “A”s.    He did so knowing he could not measure the learning of his students separate from the system in which they learned, for such measures are impossible to capture.   (As an example, consider the task of measuring the many contributions which resulted in the Bears victory yesterday over Seahawks and the appreciation that the contributions came from a series of wide-ranging events, such as practices, which did not even occur yesterday.)   More important was Dr. Deming’s ability to prepare them for an unknown future, wherein the feedback of his teaching performance and his students’ learning abilities would be years in coming.

In closing, Dr. Deming’s perspective is that any feedback given to a subordinate is done knowing that his/her performance cannot be separated from a reviewer’s ability to interact with them, for together they are members of the same team.   Feedback needs to be conducted from the vantage point of “How are WE doing,” not “How are YOU doing?”   Think of the teamwork we would experience in our organizations when we begin to see ourselves as part of the systems in which we work and live, and not as spectators.   In closing, Dr. Deming was a firm believer in teamwork.   He saw every activity in life as the result of individuals working and learning as members a team, be it a class room, on a football field, in a company, or in the halls of Congress.


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