Let Us Now Praise…Ourselves

Self-appraisals are unreliable but many federal employees are required to do them anyway. It’s a system only an egomaniac or sycophant can appreciate. So, how well did you do last year?

"Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way"
Mac Davis

The Level 3 blues

A colleague of mine who works in the Department of Defense (DoD) called a few weeks ago to bend my ear. Not surprisingly, the subject was performance appraisal. This individual is among many who are under the National Security Personnel System, or NSPS. The immediate task she faced was to complete a self-evaluation. She was late getting it done and had requested her supervisor go ahead and rate her without it. Request denied.

"He’s going to give me a Level 3 (‘Fully Successful’ under the old system) anyway, she complained. "They have their stars and suck-ups picked out before the process begins. I don’t mind the rating or the payout. I don’t need the ‘attagirl’. I just don’t know what to put on the form that will satisfy him." My advice was to recall two or three sticky situations she had resolved, recommend herself for Level 4 (formerly ‘Exceeds’) and concede the lower rating that she’s convinced she’ll eventually get.

We don’t need it and it won’t work. Let’s require it!

Those of us in human resources (HR) who have worked with performance appraisals know that self-appraisals are, for the most part, unnecessary and unreliable. Those who work in DoD and in other pay-for-performance environments also know that an employee’s evaluation of his own achievement during the previous year is required.

Most of us believe we are above average performers. In fact, most of you reading this article believe you are harder working and more competent than the average employee in your agency. You would be disappointed (though, like my friend on the phone, perhaps not surprised) to receive a Level 3 or Fully Successful rating.

This is one reason why self-appraisals are unreliable. When a supervisor asks a group of 10 subordinates to rate themselves, she should not expect 5-7 of them to come back saying they are average. The bell-shaped curve may demand it, but human beings don’t often conform. When you brought C’s home in your report card, were your parents satisfied? Moreover, studies have shown that poor performers tend to inflate their worth while the best often deflate their own.

Mom, Dad, and me

Many readers who had demanding parents (mine were chronically disappointed with my report cards, but that’s another story) were driven to both achieve and to be humble about our accomplishments. Many of you will recall being told not to go around bragging – that you got straight A’s or that you won the school track meet or that your painting was selected for a special show. "Let me show you my trophies" wasn’t the ticket to winning friends.

I doubt that I’m the only one who was told I could brag to my grandparents but not to my friend’s parents. Kids who boasted of their accomplishments (especially to the teachers who graded them) were considered to have swelled heads and/or brown noses. The presumption was that only a loser needs to convince the world of his worth.

I had a coworker decades ago who serves as an example. This individual wasn’t the best in our unit – and probably suited better to other jobs. Much of our time back then was spent meeting and dealing with the public. Whenever he was complimented for his service, he made sure to have the recognition re-directed toward our supervisor. Needless to say, what popularity he may have had diminished quickly.

Treading water in a sea of confusion

Tens of thousands of DoD, DHS (Homeland Security), and other Feds face the demand for a self-appraisal every year. From the employee’s vantage point, this exercise begs you to either brag on yourself or to refrain from bragging and face the possibility that your supervisor will take your humility and use it to minimize your achievement… and your rating. It’s a system only an egomaniac or sycophant can truly appreciate.

To add to this personal confusion, consider the Budget Analyst who has been doing the same job (no change in her regular and recurring duties) for 11 years. She is loyal, dedicated, and valuable. Given her talent, experience, and positive work ethic, shouldn’t she always get higher ratings than others? …and should she have to justify her status as a superior performer?

If she is at a higher level in her "pay band" than her coworkers, should she continue to get higher appraisals (and raises) or should the others be allowed to catch up to her higher salary? If she got a Level 5 rating last year and her record of achievement hasn’t appreciably changed and her rating criteria are similar to last year – is she going to get a Level 5 rating again? If not, will her self-evaluation really matter? I remember long ago being told, "It’s not your year. It’s someone else’s turn."

If a less experienced/talented coworker is a better prose stylist, does that put him at a competitive advantage in this new, competitive environment being touted by senior managers, politicos, and private-sector consultants? Does the person who keeps a diary of his accomplishments (and conveniently leaves out all his gaffs) stand a better chance of a big payout come rating day?

Has anybody seen my boss?

Add to the panoply of psychological dilemmas that accompany self-ratings the assumption that your supervisor actually needs it. In DoD’s training for NSPS, an example of a "job objective" is included. It is for a Budget Analyst. It reads,

"By September 30, between 20 and 25 budgets and associated reports will have been reviewed and analyzed for financial soundness and to ensure that they are within organizational budget requirements. Areas requiring attention and additional work will have been identified and addressed with the appropriate budget analysts. At least 80% of reviews will be completed within two weeks of receipt. This will support our organization’s goal of staying within fiscal guidelines for all projects."

Of course, the supervisor has been tracking and documenting all of this, right? She would not have included such metrics in the rating criteria if she didn’t intend to pursue them, would she? My teachers told me that answering 70% of questions correctly was passing… and I assumed a grade book was being kept. I never had a teacher in grade school or a professor in college ask me for my self-appraisal. The documentation spoke for itself.

DoD insists that pay-for-performance "objectives" (kind of a critical element and performance standard smooched together) be "SMART" – specific, measurable, aligned, realistic/relevant, and timed. So why task employees with self-evaluations? The answer is obvious.

Do you smell what I smell?

In most government agencies and jobs, performance appraisals are rank with subjectivity – often for good reasons. Quota systems are used (overtly or covertly), and levels of review are mandated to ensure that subjectivity doesn’t lead to inflated ratings. This is true from top to bottom, although there are more Level 4’s and 5’s at the top.

Narratives (authored by both the supervisor and subordinate) are a means of persuasion in the absence of objective documentation. My skeptical friend isn’t confused. Nor is her boss, who must go through the same process or self-appraisal toward the likelihood of a Level 3 (called "Valued Performer" in the DoD lexicon) himself. My heart goes out to anyone who demands of others what they know is nonsense – especially when the same is demanded of them.

If keeping documentation were important, supervisors would be doing it. [see Why Have Supervisors? and Appraisals, Objectivity and the Little Black Book] All it takes to give fair grades is a grade book. Moreover, it would be easy for Federal supervisors and mangers to follow the school model of quarterly reviews. Some agencies are already doing it. Regular, structured feedback helps employees know where they stand, and the best surprise becomes no surprise. In most areas it’s not happening.

The goals and objectives that OPM and Human Capital Managers imagine are cascading throughout their organizations aren’t really trickling down to ground level. For most of the Federal employees I meet in my travels, evaluations are neither tools for communication nor incentives aimed at improvements. "It’s just a numbers game" one student observed.

My colleague in DoD is right. She could be working in any of several Federal agencies that have turned to pay-for-performance without laying the needed groundwork. In the absence of management commitment to either objectivity or subjectivity, supervisors must insist that the actors review their own performances.

Now, how well do you think you did last year?

About the Author

Robbie Kunreuther is the Director of Government Personnel Services (GPS). GPS provides 1 to 3-day seminars to Federal agencies in four subject areas: Dealing with performance and conduct issues; Developing sensible performance appraisal criteria; Fostering cooperative labor-management relations; and Applying mediation skills in the workplace. Over the years, Robbie has trained thousands of Federal supervisors, managers, HR specialists, and union officials. For more information about him and GPS, go to trainingfeds.com.