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How Well Are the Bosses Bossing?


It's that time of year again. Time to do your annual self-rating and submit it to your boss, after which time you have a performance discussion, and after that you get a report card that you have to sign.

Personally I find the whole process utterly painful. Somewhat inefficient. Incomplete. Even degrading.

The real performance discussions happen all year round (or they don't), and you know what your boss is looking for from you. You know that you do well on some of those fronts, but certainly not all. It's like marriage: You may be the most devoted spouse in the world but then again you are the most irritating one, too. Especially when you leave the cap off the toothpaste, no matter how many times they tell you to put it back on.

(For me it's the damn Outlook calendar.)

You know and your boss knows that there's a whole thicket of issues around writing the formal performance appraisal, and you do this dance -- saying and not saying, thinking and they're thinking -- and the result is, well, it is something. It's not clear what it is, but the words look like English written on a page.

A really good performance appraisal helps you, for sure. It's a piece of paper that says to somebody else: Hey, this person did a good job there, they've got value as an employee. Hire them.

You know that, and so does your boss.

Conversely, a bad performance appraisal, or even one that is nonchalant, doesn't do very much for your career -- obviously.

So you really want that piece of paper to be good.

But you also want it to be honest. You do a lot of work during the year that the boss doesn't see, work outside of your strict performance requirements probably, work that you innovated and which may or may not have seen a reward.

You want recognition. You want some respect. You want the people in charge to value you.

It's hard to say what motivates your boss. Maybe they care about your professional development. Maybe they're devoted to honesty and integrity, and want to capture something accurate about your positives and negatives as a staffer. Certainly they don't have a lot of time, because they have to do actual work in addition to managing you. And they don't want to have to argue later on about whether the appraisal was fair, or worse, get into a legal tangle.

There is also the larger system to think of, of course: Both you and your supervisor are situated in a complicated web of reporting requirements. The paperwork has to be in on time, no matter what state of perfection it's in.

And the other thing. Nowhere in the system are you actually rating your supervisor.

Nowhere in the system is the supervisor pledging to perform against certain management metrics, and assigning key performance indicators and weights to those.

As a result, they can be the worst, most abusive, most arbitrary and incompetent boss alive, and nobody on the planet is going to know it, other than if you sink your career by making a stink.

So performance appraisals don't help organizational productivity much. At best, they provide a partial picture of employee performance. At worst, they misrepresent reality, create ill will between employee and supervisor, and entrench poor performers in place, while totally ignoring a critical question: How well are the bosses bossing the employees?

Obviously, this question is a critical one if our greatest asset is our people, as we are frequently wont to say.

If I had a magic wand, I would eliminate performance appraisals entirely and substitute instead six quantitative "pulse" surveys a year, followed by appointments to have real conversations. Employees would rate supervisors anonymously. Supervisors would rate employees one at a time, and they would have to provide at least one sentence of explanatory information after any highly positive or negative rating.

The result of these conversations would be rolled up into an annual review, which would be relatively automatic and based on the previous conversations.

It isn't a perfect suggestion I'm offering. But I think it would get us closer to whatever representation of reality one might call "the truth."

Copyright 2015 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. The opinions expressed are her own, and the content of this post is not intended to represent any federal agency or the government as a whole.

(Image via Goranga/

Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a federal communicator with 20 years' experience in the private sector, academia and government. Best known for her work on branding, Dr. Blumenthal now focuses on the discipline of management, particularly the intersections between identity, culture and communication. She has lectured at a variety of schools including The George Washington University and the University of Maryland University College. In her spare time she is an independent community activist, focused primarily on raising awareness about child sexual abuse and domestic violence. All opinions are her own.

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