The University of Alabama

Performance Reviews

Done Properly They Benefit Us All, But Too Often Politics Rears Its Ugly Head

'Michael' from NBC's "The Office" Image property of National Broadcasting Company, www.nbc.com

'Michael' from NBC's "The Office" Image property of National Broadcasting Company, www.nbc.com

We’ve all been through them, either on the receiving or giving end. Each is equally painful in most cases.

They have a number of names – annual performance reviews, annual evaluations, performance evaluations, employee appraisals – whatever. But, they are second only to firing an employee as the task the majority of managers say they dislike the most.

So, why do them?

“If done correctly, to give individuals feedback on his or her performance, to let them know if they can improve, and be all he or she can be,” says Dr. K. Michele Kacmar, Durr-Fillauer Chair of Business Ethics and professor of management at The Culverhouse College of Commerce at The University of Alabama. Kacmar specializes in ethics, organizational politics, impression management, and organizational entry.

Kacmar says performance reviews are “also necessary if you want to drive someone out of the organization.

“But they also are good for the organization,” she says. “They allow the organization to determine what raw material it has and will have available for use in the future, to sort of take stock in what it has.”

Some experts in the field say the fundamental problem with a performance review is that, as traditionally practiced, it is too much like the old autocratic boss who treats employees as company possessions, and it doesn’t mesh with today’s work environment, which generally is based on value, has a mission statement, a vision and encourages cooperation and teamwork. At review time, the supervisor too often acts more like a judge of the employee’s performance than as a coach or mentor.

In the conventional performance appraisal, the manager annually writes his or her opinions of the performance of a reporting staff member on a document supplied by the human resources people, and that’s where the problems start, Kacmar says, with “opinions” and “annual.”

In fact, some experts in the field think the performance appraisals should be both quantitative and qualitative, based on both descriptive evidence and numerical support.

Dr. K. Michele Kacmar (Photo by Laura Shill)

Dr. K. Michele Kacmar (Photo by Laura Shill)

“They probably should be based on both,” Kacmar says. “Employers should look at a year’s worth of work, not just recent work. A lot of performance evaluations are based on the past two weeks or a month of work, and most employers fall victim to the recency effect.”

She also recommends making the performance evaluation “two-sided, and an employee should be allowed to speak freely, as well as the supervisor.”

It is the “speaking freely” part that brings us to the issue of office politics, something most people recognize when they see it in action, but find difficult to define.

“Most of my research is on the dark side of things, why people behave badly,” Kacmar says. “In a political environment, people tend to persevere. And most of the workplace is political.

“You either play politics or leave,” she says, “or you bury your head in the sand. What you have left are the players.

“The players are the people in an organization who learn to use performance appraisals strategically. Some people are better at self preservation than others,” Kacmar says.

Kacmar and some of her colleagues have done extensive research on the subject and published a paper called “The Impact of Political Skill on Impression Management Effectiveness.” Impression management effectiveness is particularly useful when the annual review comes around.

From an employee’s standpoint, if you want to create a favorable image in the eyes of your boss, it will help if you are politically astute and know how to handle the five impression management techniques that Kacmar and her colleagues have studied.

“We submit that using any of the five impression management techniques can lead to either positive or negative impression, depending on an individual’s political skill,” Kacmar, et al write.

Kacmar says the five techniques are ingratiation, self promotion, supplication, intimidation and exemplification. Kacmar says people who are politically savvy usually have the ability to create a better impression on their supervisor when they use the tactics, while those who are not politically savvy should avoid using the techniques because they are likely to be viewed less favorable by the supervisor.

Kacmar notes that if performance appraisals are used to make key organizational decisions, those making the decisions need to be particularly careful about linking such decisions as pay raises, promotions, additional training or higher visibility roles to performance appraisals.

“It is probably a good idea if they are done in two parts. You have to process before you accept,” she says. She recommends connecting the performance appraisals to the job description and making the economic or promotion decision later. “Maybe come back a month or two later to talk about the salary or promotion issues,” she says. She also says that supervisors should constantly watch for changes in job responsibilities and make sure job descriptions are up to date and accurate.

She also notes there are a number of ways performance evaluations can be used by managers to help their own careers.

“You can give such good performance appraisals to someone who doesn’t deserve them that he or she is promoted out, and you are rid of the problem,” she says. “Or you can low ball a good performer, give them such low marks that no one will touch them, and you keep the good performer for yourself.”

So what is the answer?

“We need to automate the process,” she says. “For example, a lot of what happens in a performance evaluation is out of a sense of self preservation. A computer has no sense of self preservation. That means the performance evaluation is done for the sake of evaluation and not for strategic reasons. The more of the human element you can take out, the better. It all comes down to self preservation.

“Plus, we need more servant leaders, managers who are most happy when everyone around them is happy. Political behavior is diminished under these types of leaders because servant leaders make everyone feel valued.”

Further Reading