You probably finished 2022 with a performance evaluation round with a five-point performance rating system. To evaluate yourself, your supervisor, and your colleagues, you were probably given a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest rating.
I’ve worked with several employers, including at large firms and a nonprofit organization, and I’ve noticed that they follow the same approach to evaluating staff performance. To assess yourself, your supervisor, and your colleagues, you’re given a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest rating.
Most organizations use the traditional five-point performance rating system. But a five-point system carries with it a range of people management issues. Instead of motivating staff, it does the complete opposite. And the root cause is that employees want to receive a perfect rating of 5 out of 5. Anything less than that, even a 4, would be undesirable and be seen as a failure.
I’ve experienced this dilemma firsthand. When my work performance was rated a 4, I was disappointed. I couldn’t help but compare myself to my coworkers, who received higher ratings closer to a perfect 5. Looking back, this traditional five-point system for measuring performance is far from helpful for several reasons.
In this article, we’ll explore why a five-point performance rating system may be detrimental not just to people managers and human resources but to the organization. We’ll also share what your human resources department can do to address this all-too-common mistake.
Does striving for excellence work?
To achieve success and become a market leader, organizations ‘aim high’ in setting employee expectations and performance standards. The strategy: celebrate the few exemplary and high-performing staff members who will inspire others to do the same. Additionally, employees are encouraged to do exceptionally well at their job every time.
The consequences of such an approach are potentially disastrous, however.
What are the drawbacks of aiming for a perfect rating?
Many organizations believe that setting ‘exceed’ or 5 out of 5 as the gold standard for performance is the best way to meet their goals. But this can lead to undesired behaviors, as seen in the situations below.
Divide and conquer. Setting extraordinarily high expectations can lead to false confidence and optimism. If staff work hard to exceed expectations, there is a greater chance of being adamantly focused on their own goals than collective goals. This can lead to division and conflict as staff members try to reach lofty individual goals.
Expectations versus reality. Setting ‘exceed’ as the performance standard can also create unrealistic expectations. When staff members believe they can achieve incredible things, they may be disappointed when reality doesn’t meet their expectations. As a result, they become too critical of their work, always striving to improve, even when the work is satisfactory. Employees may feel they can’t succeed, leading to demoralization and frustration and harming team morale and productivity.
Under pressure. Doing one’s job well can sometimes be challenging, but it is even more problematic when it involves working under conditions that aren’t conducive to success. When the pressure is high, it is easy for performance to suffer.
Compare and contrast. Instead of working on their tasks and achieving their goals, employees may be more likely to focus on how they compare to others. And when comparing their work with that of their colleagues, staff may feel they need to do more. This can lead to resentment and conflict, and it can also damage morale.
Alienation. When managers reward only high-performing staff members, they may inadvertently harm employee engagement. Managers who target star employees may risk alienating others who feel they cannot meet expectations. This hurts employee engagement and affects the organization’s culture and vibe.
At a certain point, striving to excel and exceed expectations may become frustrating or demotivating. To avoid setting up your organization for failure and to keep staff accountable, consider shifting to a performance standard that is more realistic and meaningful to them.
What does Birches Group recommend?
Remember that people want to feel valued and that everyone in the organization matters. Setting the attainable goal of achieving targets and improving one’s skills and performance are better ways to motivate people.
In contrast to the traditional five-point performance rating system I’ve seen in several organizations, Birches Group uses a simpler, less problematic four-point system. At Birches Group, performance is measured on a four-point system—Fail, Needs Improvement, Achieve, and Exceed—where Achieve is the gold standard and Exceed is the highest and reflects exceptional work. What I appreciate about this more straightforward approach is that there is less pressure, politics, and alienation. Everyday achievers are held in high esteem. Most staff are achievers who deliver what is expected of them in a performance year. Through the Birches Group four-point rating system, the organization can celebrate the many ‘good’ or the many achievers while allowing the exceptional few to be rewarded accordingly. The fact that there are different kinds of performers—the good, the great, and the exceptional—is acknowledged.
Recognize only a few exemplary employees, and you could set up your organization for failure. If you want staff to remain productive, engaged, and empowered, celebrate the many achievers across your organization and aim for progress. Doing so will also help your people stay focused, deliver results, and ultimately help them feel that they matter.
Carla is a part-time copywriter in our marketing team in Manila. Before shifting to freelance writing in 2020, she worked as a marketing and communications specialist at the offices of EY and Grant Thornton. She has written about HR and career development for Kalibrr.
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