The appraisal malaise

Dennis Tourish passes judgement on a system that invariably fails to give a clear picture of how well people are doing their jobs

August 25, 2011

Credit: Marcus Butt

Practices from the "real world" of management intrude ever further into higher education. Appraisal interviews for academic staff were unheard of 20 years ago. Now, like Simon Cowell, they are impossible to avoid. Ironically, there is little evidence to suggest that they improve performance in the private sector. There is none to show that, in the university context, they do anything other than clog up people's time, sprinkle demoralisation, reduce intrinsic motivation and generate cynicism. How can this be, and what should be done?

Private industry practices often exist in spite of evidence that shows they are harmful. Many managers are dedicated followers of fashion. They see other organisations doing something, and assume - quite irrationally - that they must have a good reason for doing so. They then copy it. This has been described as "casual benchmarking". Universities have fallen into the same trap. Because a practice is ubiquitous it is assumed that it works - ergo, we will do it too. The result is that universities end up imitating all the worst vices of private industry, while dismantling their own traditions of collegiality, informality and trust.

Most formal statements by universities' human resources departments stress that their appraisal systems are there to celebrate examples of positive performance, identify training needs and set goals for the forthcoming year while reviewing those of the past. Sounds innocuous?

Nevertheless, studies in the public and private sector find most people dissatisfied with them. Problems include a perceived lack of strategic focus, too much subjectivity on the part of appraisers, insufficient skill at giving feedback and an accumulation of power by petty tyrants who relish the chance to pass judgements on others. Appraisal interviews also tend to focus on individual performance. Yet even many academic activities now require teamwork. Moreover, the impact of someone's effort is largely determined by system factors (such as teaching loads), sometimes to a greater extent than individual levels of skill, ambition or motivation.

"Spans of control" are also wider than ever, while we all work harder, across many more activities, than we did a decade ago. This makes it increasingly difficult for managers in universities, themselves battered and bruised from overwork, to form a clear picture of how well people have done their jobs. As a result, many would-be appraisers are in no position to deliver well-informed evaluations of the performance of others. The attempt to do so, a dialogue between disorientation and exhaustion, undermines the sense of autonomy and intrinsic task motivation that is so essential to academic life.

In addition, self-efficacy biases predispose us to believe that we perform better on various dimensions of job behaviour than most other people. ("My colleagues are idiots, but I know what I am doing.") We then assume that others see us in the same rose-tinted light. The phenomenon can be observed in any episode of The X Factor, in which human foghorns exhibit the conviction that they are destined to be the next Elvis or Madonna - whatever the judges say. Positive feedback therefore feels intuitively valid. Critical feedback feels ridiculous. Since it is viewed as defective, people generally reject it. This is known as "the automatic vigilance effect". It means that most critical feedback stimulates conflict and resentment rather than a determination to improve performance. A Russian proverb asserts that a spoonful of tar spoils a barrel of honey. Since all critical feedback feels threatening, even a tiny amount of it in a formal appraisal interview is what the recipient will choke over, and brood upon. Better performance rarely results.

What, then, should be done? I am all in favour of regular discussions between university managers and staff about what their institution is doing, its key strategic priorities, how both sides are contributing to the overall effort and what they each need to do next. Such discussions should be frequent, and largely informal. Once paperwork intrudes, common sense vacates the room, to make way for posturing, pretence and disillusionment. There are few other activities that generate so much noise and resentment but contribute so little to the achievement of a university's strategic objectives. Of course, poor (or good) performance needs to be acknowledged, and dealt with. But this should occur as soon as the behaviour is manifest. The past is a distant country, shrouded in shadow and fog. A cost-benefit analysis of formal appraisal systems would suggest that the pain outweighs the gain. We would all be much better off if we put them out of our collective misery.

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