Guest Column

The Seven No-No's of Performance Evaluation


The biblical injunction of judgment day is a familiar one, but little did we know there would be more than one.

These days have become known as personnel evaluation. They are no longer judgments nor a day, but instead a process, an event, a performance review, a culminating activity and such. We no longer judge performance, we evaluate it. We no longer judge people, we evaluate them.

As education takes on a higher profile and more folks see it as the most important task before our country, we can expect more judgment days. Whatever performance evaluation is called, rest assured it will be non-threatening, good for you and done with your best interests at heart.

The evaluation of personnel has taken on a new glow as those who evaluate staff performance exercise their faith in the perfectibility of other colleagues. Through evaluation they believe they send messages that can lead to improved schools, increased student achievement and an ever-higher level of performance by those evaluated.

In education, consultants roam the evaluation landscape, peddling their wonderful plans for improving personnel evaluation. Their suggested methods include performance questions such as the ever difficult, "Is the building still standing at the end of the school year?" to the more sublime, "If the building fell on you, how would you deal with the school board?"

Blundering Acts
To ensure that evaluation in your school district becomes an exercise that even Machiavelli would embrace, I have compiled the seven blunders of personnel evaluation now most commonly in use.

No. 1: Trivial Pursuit.

With this method, the evaluator must know all kinds of details, but must never pull the details together into a recognizable descriptive pattern of the performance evaluated. Using Trivial Pursuit, the evaluator begins the year accumulating bits and pieces of information about the evaluatee. No qualitative priority is assigned to the bits and pieces. They are all equal.

Then, at the evaluation conference, all the pieces are brought to the evaluation discussion. If done right, the staff member evaluated will be overwhelmed by their number. More is better!

The random use of bits of information does not lend itself to drawing conclusions about what performance means. Instead, Trivial Pursuit drives a wedge in the head of the person being evaluated because priorities for improvement are random and meaningless.

No. 2: The Shell Game.

This is a fairly straightforward approach. The evaluator asks a staff member to rate himself or herself by identifying personal strengths and weaknesses prior to the evaluation conference. In turn, the staff member's assessment is forwarded to the evaluator. When the evaluation conference is held, the staff member will expect to hear about the evaluation originally forwarded to the evaluator. Surprise! The evaluator sets out three separate evaluations, each under separate cover. One of them is the original.

The staff member will be asked to guess which belongs to him or her. If she picks wrong, she gets someone else's evaluation or the evaluator's creative interpretation of her self-evaluation. The Shell Game is good for surprises and effective in alienating whomever you are evaluating. It is also illegal on the streets of New York.

No. 3: I Perceptor.

This evaluation approach is based on an interior monologue of your evaluator without regard for performance criteria or observation. The person relying on the I Perceptor evaluation approach never questions the condition of the evaluator's mind or its relationship to reality when drawing evaluative conclusions.

This psychological approach to evaluation is a bit deeper than the Shell Game and effectively alienates and demoralizes the evaluated. There is no defense against it. It is based upon facts that only exist in the evaluator's head--regardless of what truths or misconceptions are or are not!

No. 4: "Gotcha."

This approach is easy and requires little thought. Throughout the year, the evaluator observes a staff member's performance and notes it. The more "good" performance items noted, the better "Gotcha" works.

At the evaluation conference, all items on the good performance list are noted without comment. This list of good stuff is immediately followed by mention of any small, inconsequential performance area that went awry such as, "I noticed when you sent a memo there was a bit of confusion over it. This is something you had better work on." Gotcha!

It is upon this incidental negative performance that the overall evaluation is built. The Gotcha technique is particularly effective when evaluators lack time for more complicated evaluation methods and are insecure about their performance in comparison to the person evaluated.

Gotcha is simple in that it requires little intelligence.

No. 5: Covert Evaluation.

Training as a CIA agent helps, but is not required. What is required is a true sense of secretiveness and the ability to gather information clandestinely. The person being evaluated is never asked the truth of the remarks others make about him or her. Nor does the evaluator question the reliability of the information.

Once gathered, all the secret information is brought to the evaluation conference. Up to this point the person being evaluated does not know the secret information exists. In the evaluation conference, discussion of performance is dispensed with and replaced with "He said, she said, I said, they said, and therefore I am convinced that you have a performance problem to work on, but I cannot tell you who my sources are."

Covert evaluation effectively keeps the person evaluated off balance. It is especially difficult for those who enter the process believing their evaluation is based upon performance. A covert evaluator leaves the staff member not trusting colleagues, effectively driving a wedge between people and, ultimately, prying them loose from each other.

No. 6: The Procrustean Bed.

This technique comes right out of Greek mythology. You may recall that Procrustes was a giant of Attica who captured travelers and tied them to an iron bed. If the traveler was too large, Procrustes would cut the traveler's legs off, or if he were too small he stretched the traveler until he fit the bed.

Following this Greek myth's way, the person evaluated is either cut down to size or stretched to fit his evaluation bed. Nothing else is required beyond the evaluator's ability to not allow facts about performance to take precedence over the size of the bed to which he is being fitted.

No. 7. Open-Ended Story Time.

Anybody who has taught elementary school knows this technique well. The evaluation is never concluded. It just goes on and on. At any point in the evaluation process, conclusions about the person being evaluated can be changed.

Story time is especially effective with persons who do not want to know about their performance. The bottom line can be avoided continually by engaging in evaluation dialogue. The evaluator also can keep adding elements to the evaluation and never be pinned down as to what he thinks. This allows the evaluator to maintain the appearance of being a fair and sensitive person.

A Guaranteed Demise
These seven evaluation techniques strip people of their dignity and demoralize them. Eventually, if continued as ongoing evaluation practices, pockets of unrest will grow among your staff. Finally, there will be no support system left for whatever it is you do. And, ultimately, this lack of support will act as a precursor for your own demise.

Remember, it isn't so much what's on the table that matters, as what is on the chairs.

David Johnston recently retired after 29 years as an administrator in Wisconsin. He can be reached at S-320 Oak Drive, Coon Valley, WI 54623. E-mail: