Can I disagree with your self-assessment?

(c) Danny Plas

Can I disagree with your self-assessment?

We recently finished our year-end evaluations in the public service and in line with this process, I have been thinking a lot about the value, if any, of the self-evaluation as an aid to this process.

Some assessments can only be self-assessments (for example, I use a voluntary values clarification exercise with my team as a jumping off point for a discussion on job fit).

Other self-assessments can act as a proxy for how a decision-maker will asses a certain set of facts. For example, the public service has a self-assessment quiz which I found very useful in determining if I’d be running afoul of values and ethics guidelines for participating in certain activities during federal elections.

Using self-assessments for year-end evaluations doesn’t fit well into either category however.  They may touch on personal values (“What do you think were your greatest accomplishments in the past year?”), though they will also likely include an evaluation against established criteria when objectives have been set for the year.

So, what to make of the now common practice that self-assessments are used more and more to “front-end” appraisals that were designed to be filled out from a superior, top-down?

First the good: I support some kind of reflection on the year by both employees and managers and further, I think that this reflection should occur before the manager writes a description of year-end assessment.  I no longer present my written narrative of the year that was as a first step to the year end discussion.  From past experience, most employees will quickly agree with the contents and sign it to have the discussion over with. I now send employees a few questions to guide a more open discussion before I start writing the appraisal.  These would include questions about accomplishments from the year but also questions like “What keeps you here?” and “What am I doing to support (and hamper) the team’s development?”

The goal is to make the consideration of what to include in the write-up as fulsome as possible.  Generally we can agree easily on the highlights of the year but there may be instances that accomplishments stood out more for one of us than was clear at the time.

What is most interesting for me however is that my list of accomplishments is generally much longer than what the employee provides.  This isn’t just a question of me being generous but rather what I see as the limit of the self-assessment for employees in appraisals.  After taking a similar approach for a few years, I see that, in general, the accomplishments will go back perhaps one or two quarters but not more whereas I try to keep notes through the year to make sure I have a complete record.  In addition, employees will generally focus on finishing documents of note rather than reflecting on the soft skills advanced such as abilities that they strengthened or relationships built.

When it works well, the self assessment component increases the engagement of the employees in the process and seems to bring the stress levels down about what will actually end up on the page.  Though I firmly believe in the “no surprises” approach to appraisals, the process of getting something down on paper to mark the year, can still be stressful.

The bad and the ugly:  Where the invitation to self assess can get messy if you make the invitation to self-assess in the belief that you’ll both end up in the same ballpark and you don’t.  This article mentions a non-cited study that says that employees performing well tend to be more modest and employees not performing well, tend to be more boastful. So, you disagree with the employee’s high opinion of their accomplishments. Then what?

Can you disagree with the self-assessment? I’d argue that you can’t and not just because of semantics.  If you invite the employee’s opinions or arguably delegate their own assessment to them, I think that you have bargained away your option to disagree with this information.  The assessment period is stressful for both parties and asking an employee to put their neck out in this way can leave them vulnerable and potentially damage the ongoing relationship. For this reason, you can only build on this information they provide and not subtract from it.  In this situation, all of this information should form part of the picture.  Besides which, any disconnect that you perceive as a manager on where someone is at, as against their own assessment, should just be considered useful development information for the year ahead.

The rub: Though generally useful when relationships are good, self-assessments which generate an area of discord must be used as against the “yes, and” principle in improv comedy.  You can only add to the information provided, not subtract.  If you aren’t sure how it will go, just avoid the self-assessment altogether.  You’ll avoid the danger of the illusion that the appraisal is completely democratic when, in the end, the manager owns the responsibility for the document.

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