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Employees asked to write self-appraisals?

I used to think that asking employees to create self-appraisals was a great idea. I used to encourage organizations to make self-appraisal a regular component of their performance management processes. But in the last few years, I’ve changed my mind.

Why? The infinite human capacity for self-delusion.

While the individual’s personal insights into the quality of his own performance may be a useful data point for the manager in creating the formal performance appraisal, many people believe that asking the employee to complete a self-assessment using the company’s appraisal form is a good idea. It’s not. It’s a bad idea and needs to be stomped out.

In their article, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Cornell University researchers Justin Kruger and David Dunning found that those who are incompetent performers are also incapable of assessing the difference between good and bad performance. As they put it, “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, they are left with the mistaken impression that they are doing just fine.”

Research consistently demonstrates that individuals are notoriously inaccurate in assessing their own performance, and the poorer the performer, the higher (and more inaccurate) the self-assessment. Research by the firm Lominger, Inc. indicates that “The overall correlation between self-ratings and performance was .00. The most accurate rater by far is the immediate boss.”

In July 2007 BusinessWeek surveyed 2000 Americans in middle management positions and above, asking them the question, “Are you one of the top 10% of performers in your company?” Not one group surveyed had less than 80 percent of the respondents answering affirmatively. 84 percent of all middle managers reported that they were in the top ten percent of performers in their company. Executives — the most deluded cluster by far — had a Yes response in 97 percent of those surveyed. Lake Wobegon, indeed!

Last year a senior manager in a company that had engaged me to create a forced ranking process reported the same phenomenon you described, with top performers rating themselves lower than they were and less effective performers rating themselves higher. “All the A players think they’re Bs,” he said. “The B players are nervous that they’re Cs. And all the C players are convinced they’re As.”

“Know thyself” may be good philosophical advice, but in assessing how good a job you’ve done, your boss knows better than you do.

About the Author

Dick Grote has been a management consultant for almost thirty years, specializing exclusively in the field of employee performance appraisal and management. As a consultant, he has created employee performance management systems for several hundred of the world’s best known and most respected companies, including Texas Instruments, JCPenney, Miller Brewing Company, American Airlines, Macy’s, Raytheon, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, and Herman Miller.


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