David Earl Johnson, LICSW

11 minute read

No one likes them, not employees or managers. Employees wait with trepidation for that day, and often even the best performers come out of the process angry, demeaned, demoralized, and unmotivated. Seasoned managers, after observing years of this process, dread the damage that will be done to their best performers and look for ways to soften the blow, often by overlooking issues. When I went back to direct care after 12 years in management in mental health clinics, PEs and employee discipline was a part of the management process I wouldn’t miss.

This is a widely known and seldom talked about phenomena. What’s wrong? The format of PEs have been heavily influenced by lawyers with the focus on documenting results, honest appraisal, and measurable outcomes with hopes of avoiding wrongful termination lawsuits. Smart HR directors have been tinkering with this process for years to get the results without doing the damage with only modest improvements.

Jena McGregor from the Washington Post has done a series of articles in PEs over the past five years. “Recent research by psychologists at Kansas State University, Eastern Kentucky University and Texas A&M University looked into how people respond to negative feedback they receive in a performance review. They guessed that people who are motivated by a real desire to learn would respond well to getting critical feedback in a performance review, using it to improve how they work without much in the way of complaint. They were wrong.” Employees who were most focused on learning to do their job well, also report PE impact their morale, productivity and overall job satisfaction.

“Those are just some of the reasons a few companies have become frustrated enough with the process that they’re doing away with performance reviews entirely. The Wall Street Journal reported that according to the Corporate Executive Board, 3 percent of companies in 2012 dropped PEs altogether.” In 2013, Minneapolis-based Medtronic joined the trend. While that may seem small, it’s notable given the stranglehold the practice has had on human resources departments for years. Some business school professors have advocated their end, too, calling them a “dysfunctional pretense” that are “negative to corporate performance” and “a prime cause of low morale at work.” (WAPO, 2011, 2014)

Here is another point she makes that I have personally experienced. “Brain research shows that when a person’s status is threatened-something that often happens when we’re told in a performance review how we need to improve-activity diminishes in certain regions of the brain. When that occurs, says David Rock, the author of “Your Brain at Work” and the director of an institute aimed at applying neuroscience to leadership issues, “people’s fields of view actually constrict, they can take in a narrower stream of data, and there’s a restriction in creativity.”

“In surveys of managers and human resource professionals, leadership advisory firm, the Corporate Executive Board [CEB] found that performance reviews, well, get pretty bad reviews themselves.

“They’re wildly inaccurate, for one: CEB’s research finds that two-thirds of employees who receive the highest scores in a typical performance management system are not actually the organization’s highest performers…. The reviews are ineffective, too: Managers told CEB that conventional reviews only generate a 3- to 5-percent improvement in employee performance. They’re also surprisingly inadequate: Just 23 percent of HR folks surveyed by the firm say they’re satisfied with their organizations’ performance evaluations, down from more than 50 percent a decade ago. Eighty-five percent have either made changes in the past year in hopes of improvement or plan to do so in the next year. (WAPO, 2013)

TIC and Little Trauma vs Big Trauma

Those of us who have been in clinical practice for a while have been aware of the effects of childhood trauma on future adults. Research has shown that each incident of adverse childhood experiences has a growing effect on the risk of aversive outcome. How do incidents of adversity in adulthood contribute? How about adversity that may not be considered traumatic as defined in the ACES study? It seems likely that this sub-traumatic stress would contribute to an overall negative outcome as well. People with stressful lives have significant impact on their overall health and wellness. As managers, as therapists, as parents, as spouses, we must consider how our behavior every day may contribute to the stress and/or health of another. I believe that is basic to creating a trauma-informed culture.

The results of creating a trauma-informed culture should be observable and measurable. The outcomes we expect to see include: less violence of all kinds, better staff morale, lower staff turnover, fewer injuries to staff and client, a truly collaborative treatment environment, the reduction or elimination of coercive forms of intervention, and better client outcomes. Before the age of computer based rating scales, managers thought they knew how to do PEs Longenecker, et. al., (1987), in an extensive survey of experienced managers reported that accuracy was not their primary concern. Rather, they were much more interested in whether their ratings would be effective in maintaining or increasing the subordinate’s future level of performance. For example, a manager might inflate the rating because the subordinate’s performance had improved during the latter part of the performance period, even though the overall performance did not merit such a rating. Again, the motivation for this higher-than-deserved rating was a desire to encourage the subordinate to continue their improvement. Sometimes imbedded in cultural patterns, basic truths emerge from the seasoned professional.

Longenecker thought the managers interviewed suggested several compelling reasons for exercising managerial discretion contrary to traditional appraisal research recommendations. “Performance appraisal is perhaps most usefully viewed as a high-potential vehicle for motivating and rewarding employees, rather than as a mandatory, bureaucratic exercise used only for judgmental or manipulative purposes. Ideally, it should be treated as an opportunity to communicate formally with employees about their performance, their strengths and weaknesses, and their developmental possibilities.

My Comments on Longenecker

Let me give an example of where I think we are in the art of performance evaluation. The gold standard of PEs calls for measurable objectives, documentation and honesty. Standard practice these days for a first year evaluation is a case in point. This is how I was trained to do PEs, be accurate, honest and objective.

During regular supervision meetings throughout the employee’s first year, the supervisor brings to the supervisee each discovery of less than adequate performance The supervisor dutifully documents each performance incident. At appraisal time, the supervisor reviews with the supervisee each incident that they had discussed before, reviews the training and coaching that followed, and the outcome. The supervisor emphasizes the progress made. Then the supervisor does an overall rating of performance based on the entire year carefully noting the progress made and remaining challenges. The supervisee is presented with a written version of the document listing the events of the year.

What do you think the supervisee recalls about the performance evaluation? Progress made? Or the list of errors that were made and documented to be placed in his personnel file?

I can tell you my reaction from both sides of the experience. I was always surprised and perplexed when my supervisee reacted so strongly to their appraisal. They were focused on the review of every error made. They did not seem to remember as well my heavy emphasis on the positive accomplishments and efforts towards improvement. More recently, I was surprised at how gutted I felt when I experienced the supervisee side of this standard practice.

I also recall with much appreciation where supervisors briefly touched on the challenges of the past year, but focused most of the hour on accomplishments, improvements, goals for the next year, the benefits to the clients and how important those efforts were to the organization as a whole. Was this fair, objective, review of measurable goals? No. But it was still an honest appraisal and highly motivating of hard work and loyalty.

We are not rational beings. An objective process is perceived as cold and harsh, regardless of how we dress it up. Supervision is as much a relationship skill as therapy, but not the same process. It is impossible to forget that a manager has more power than a staff member in supervision. But I wonder if stepping beyond the superficiality of professionalism, may make the PE more likely motivating. That’s why I’m searching for a new a humanistic, TIC-informed paradigm for supervision and management.

PEs are not going away, but they need serious revision. What alternatives do we have?

360 Degree Performance Evaluations

360 Degree Feedback appears in several articles on the web, and is sold by consultation agencies as a way to change performance evaluations. I didn’t find any effectiveness research about this approach in my cursory search. It’s described as a system or process in which employees receive confidential, anonymous feedback from the people who work around them. This typically includes the employee’s manager, peers, and direct reports. In terms of building a cohesive team however, it’s weakness is in the principle of anonymous feedback. Imagine getting feedback from one of your colleagues that is critical and you believe unfair or biased, but you have no idea where it came from. Oher than protesting, you will have nothing you can do about it. And because details are withheld to protect the informant, you have insufficient detail to address the problem. How safe would you feel? Such a system could lead to a dangerous undermining of the team atmosphere and cohesiveness.

Participatory Performance Evaluation

Roberts (2003) describes performance appraisal is a controversial management tool. He advocates that genuine performance appraisal participation he believes will mitigate many of the problems with traditional performance appraisals while providing a more “humane” and “ethical” HR tool. The participatory appraisal process empowers the employee to take charge of the process, adding the employee and coworkers voice, and generating an atmosphere of cooperation and employee support, effectively enhancing team function. Roberts envisions participation process beginning with a joint management/employee development of performance standards, rating form, employee self-appraisal, and co-worker participation in the interview process. The effectiveness of participation is moderated by two key processes, the amount of quality information in the PE and the goalsetting which focuses attention on the future. Roberts reviews the literature between 1960s and 1990s and concludes that employee participation in the interview is associated with a variety of desirable appraisal related outcomes including appraisal system fairness, appraisal satisfaction, supervisory support, satisfaction of supervisors, appraisal system acceptance, and greater employee acceptance of feedback.

This approach to performance evaluation seems to me to have promise in actually building team cohesiveness and job satisfaction based on team support and collaboration. I think it could appeal to a mental health setting where team cohesiveness and support is critical to quality care. The appraisal could focus on strengths and progress, deemphasizing problems and weaknesses instead talking professional and skill development. The whole team could participate. Or the employee could select a representative sample of team members from clinical team, support staff team, and other relevant units to participate in the appraisal process. The employee could be empowered to choose the method of the appraisal interview, either one on one with each rater or as a group. There would be no secret source of feedback.

In this approach, the managers role is differentiated by role function rather than emphasizing authority. Authority is invested in the team for clinical consultation and communication feedback about team function. The supervisor provides the employee with information about productivity, client satisfaction, compliance issues and other kinds of feedback the employee would rather keep private. Longenecker advocates for minimizing the amount of written feedback in the PE, noting that the thought of that incriminating document sitting in a file for ready review is intimidating to staff. But a summary of success on objectives specified in the job description would be sufficient while the details can be limited to a verbal exchange. Ratings could discussed in detail and negotiated in private.

This approach would challenge supervisors to be facillators of team interaction and team building, de-emphasize their role as the sole source of performance feedback. It may be an uncomfortable change from a more hierarchical system. But imagine the benefits to team function and morale. Imagine a work setting where team interaction, feedback to each other, and is based on genuineness, warmth, empathy, honesty, respect and accountability. I think this is a system that a mental health center staff could rally around once experienced.


Perhaps the most interesting finding from Longnecker’s study is that accuracy of performance appraisal is not the primary concern of the practicing manager in appraising subordinates. The main concern is how best to use the appraisal process to motivate and reward subordinates. Hence, managerial discretion and effectiveness, not accuracy, are the real watchwords. One concept that has profoundly influence my perspective throughout my career is providing training and supervision with the same tools of the trade we use with our clients. What better way to ensure consistent values, openness to feedback, and accountability than in a work culture that is founded on those principles? It could take the little “t”rauma out of the PE process.


Focal 360 and CustomInsight (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.custominsight.com/360-degree-feedback/what-is-360-degree-feedback.asp on 1/19/17. Longenecker, C., Sims, H., and Gioia, D. (1987). Behind the Mask: The Politics of Employee Appraisal. The Academy of Management EXECUTIVE, 1987, Vol 1. No 3, pp 183-193. McGregor, Jena. January 27, 2014. Washington Post. “On Leadership: Study finds that basically every single person hates performance reviews.” McGregor, Jena. February 14, 2013. Washington Post. “On Leadership: The corporate kabuki of performance reviews.” McGregor, Jena. December 22, 2011. Washington Post. “On Leadership: Everything that’s wrong with performance reviews.” Roberts, G. (2003) Employee Performance Appraisal System Participation; A Technique That Works. Pub. Personnel Management. Volume 32. Number 1.

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