At Sixes and Sevens: Why Words Matter More than Numbers in Employee Appraisals 0

Appraisals are more about evaluation than about measurement. A good appraisal process is the one which encourages a healthy and transparent dialogue, and as a consequence, ensures constructive and practicable feedback. There is a need for organisations to understand that words we use to play one of the largest roles in employee evaluations and the conversations we have can inspire professional growth and ignite positive change. 

Urvish Paresh Mehta is a Chartered Accountant by profession, with an equal liking for words and numbers. People and processes have always fascinated him. He currently works as a Strategic Business Advisor and Investment Banker at KNAV, an organisation having a presence in six countries worldwide.

There’s an oft-venerated axiom in the corporate universe, which has almost hardened to a cliché – “You cannot manage what you cannot measure”. While there are absolutely no qualms about how true the statement is, there have been over-intensified attempts to “objectivise” and “uniformise” the assessment of subjectivity. Employee appraisal forms have been one such attempt.

Employee appraisal forms, especially those mandating numerical depiction of the year under review, attract various connotations from different quarters. For the unassuming everyday employee, it ends up being a lowly form-filling exercise rather than serving as a reflective tool. For the manager, it often translates to being an employee fault-finding device more than being a mechanism to harness employee strengths. The very essence of appraisal is thus reduced to a mandated compliance tick-box.

Appraisal forms, which advocate assigning numbers on a rated scale to quantify performance on various parameters, have inherent fallacies which have aggravated with the complexity of the times. Every individual may perceive numbers differently, and hence, it may not be prudent to believe that quantification eliminates subjectivity and its associated perils completely. A rating of six from a critical person may have the same underlyings as a rating of eight from a more considerate individual. The same inputs can tantamount to diverse conclusions, and by extension, disparate assessment.

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Numbers in an appraisal may also not end up conveying the entire picture, and may often be influenced by recency bias, especially when an employee is subjected to a 360-degree appraisal survey. Recent events and experiences, whether good or bad, can skew the results, resulting in a lopsided view. Number-centric approaches tend to focus excessively on the conclusion, rather than the factors which contributed to such a conclusion. They extrapolate the symptoms, rather than focusing on the causes of the ailment directly. When the questions asked are open-ended and answerable in words, an in-built rationale seeking forum is established, leading to a better collation of actionable items, which may not be just individual-centric, but which can be harnessed organisation-wide.

Instead of pointers like “Demonstrate your leadership skills on a scale of 1-10”, engaging questions like “Showcase instances where your leadership skills were put to test” garner better responses and bring with them a sense of perspective. This creates a placeholder for the story behind the moral and gives a sound rationale for enhanced assessment methodologies.

The appraisal process, like any human-behaviour-oriented study, is not a perfect science and shouldn’t be even perceived or attempted to be made as such. Pigeonholing ratings to fit the arithmetic scheme and plotting the results on a bar graph with two axes may be an exercise of futility, since the inputs may not be sacrosanct, or reasoning based.

Another advantage of having a word-based appraisal process is that it opens up a window for reflection and contemplation. When the answers require prior thinking and not just a click on a number, it makes the appraisee realise what was expected, and whether or not s/he has been able to deliver effectively and efficaciously. It can also be an avenue to check unrealistic goals at the door, leading to an augmented alignment between an individual, teams and the organisation at large.

A good appraisal process is the one which encourages a healthy and transparent dialogue, and as a consequence, ensures constructive and practicable feedback.

In an age where employee sentiments matter as much as employee productivity, if not more, a delicate and sensitive exercise of appraisal needs to be dealt with in an all-inclusive manner. Employee interactions can be the best source of identifying intra-firm culture improvements; appraisal forms can be meaningfully leveraged to serve as by-products for this initiative as well.

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While numbers may be easy to measure, these may not be the best to evaluate. Appraisals are more about evaluation than about measurement. The fine line between measurement and evaluation should be acknowledged and honoured while drafting the employee assessment forms.

In an ardent urge to quantify everything we can get hold of, the larger truth enshrined in raw but structured employee interactions is too big a trade-off to be afforded!

A good appraisal process is the one which encourages a healthy and transparent dialogue, and as a consequence, ensures constructive and practicable feedback.

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Urvish Paresh Mehta is a Chartered Accountant by profession, with an equal liking for words and numbers. People and processes have always fascinated him. He currently works as a Strategic Business Advisor and Investment Banker at KNAV, an organisation having presence in six countries worldwide.

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