Performance Evals: Dump or Keep?

Today’s post is a great article by Micheal Bungay Stanier. It is especially current as many Fortune 500 companies are re-thinking their practice of annual or semiannual performance evaluations. More recently, Adobe Systems has dropped the practice.

Dr. Deming once called performance evaluation as the “great destroyer of people” and not the way to improve things. That’s why I dropped it when I was a police chief and am happy to report that decades later, there are no performance evaluations. What do they do instead? Talk, listen and coach — daily!

Michael Bungay Sanier

Why We’re So Bad at Coaching & Performance Appraisals


That’s the sound of performance appraisal processes being blown up across the country. There’s been a collective lightening flash of realization that the old way of doing it just isn’t doing it. For anyone. It’s largely a waste of time, money and mojo.

What replaces it is still not clear. There are all sorts of nascent tech solutions, and various forms of Performance Appraisal Lite. But if there’s one thing that seems to be consistent,it’s the belief that all managers and leaders need to coach their people more consistently, more successfully and more often.

Coaching: Simple And Difficult

And what is coaching? Among the many, many definitions that exist, the one from Sir John Whitmore (the person most responsible for popularizing the ubiquitous GROW model) rings most true: “Unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.

Two things resonate here. First is the understanding that coaching isn’t about rescuing or fixing the other person, but about helping them help themselves. Second is the teasing apart of the difference between teaching (“Let me give you the answer”) and learning(“Let me help you find the answer”).

And what does that translate to in actual behavior? Stay curious a little longer, move to advice giving and action a little more slowly. More questions, fewer answers.

That sounds easy enough.

But clearly, it’s not. One piece of research found that although over 70% of managers self-reported that they’d had some form of coaching skills training, only 23% of people receiving coaching from their managers felt that it was making any significant impact. And 10% felt it actually made things worse (those must have been motivating meetings to attend).

So what’s so difficult? There are three major factors: time, habit, and control.

No Time, No Time

Even while proclaiming the value of coaching in his seminal article, Daniel Goleman shrugged his shoulders and said, “Many leaders told us they don’t have the time in this high-pressure economy for the slow and tedious work of teaching people and helping them grow.” And don’t forget, this was back in the halcyon days of 2000, when we were less connected and less overwhelmed and less distracted than we are today.

The “no time, no time” perception is widespread, and it’s often cited by managers as the biggest barrier to why they don’t coach. It’s in part because of the mistaken belief that manager coaching and executive coaching is similar. Executive coaches typically have the luxury of showing up regularly — once or twice a month — and having a focused hour with their clients.

That’s entirely opposite to what most manager and leaders can do. At Box of Crayons, we’re clear that for busy managers, coaching has to be fast — 10 minutes or less — and a regular occurrence. The metaphor is drip irrigation rather than the occasional flash flood. It also can’t be an addition to their current responsibilities, but something that transforms and elevates the transactions they already have.

But even if there’s the realization that being more coach-like means transforming the way we’re interacting with others, and that it can be fast, practical and useful, we’re still up against the fact that giving advice is a habit that’s in our bones.

Good Habits Or Bad Habits?

Solution providing and answer giving are deep habits for us all. From our earliest school years we were trained to provide this, and that’s the way we “add value” in our working lives too.

Of course, some of us have got clever, mastering the art of pseudo-coaching by asking fake questions. It starts with asking “questions,” questions that begin with “Have you thought of . . . ?” or “What about . . . ?” or “Did you consider . . . ?” But these aren’t questions at all. They are just advice with a question mark tacked on the end.

And then there’s the fake active listening. It’s probably the one thing you can remember from any training you might have had, and we all now know how to do it. Tilt your head to the side slightly. Furrow brow in an interested/concerned/thoughtful manner. Nod head occasionally. Add small grunting noises of encouragement where appropriate.

All that glosses over the fact that we’re not listening at all. No, we’ve already decided what we need to tell the other person, and now we’re just waiting for the right moment to interrupt and let them have it.

But the challenge in finding a good question and asking it well goes deeper than just its being a well-practiced habit.

It’s about power.

Who’s In Control?

There’s something lovely about giving the answer, about providing the help. Even though your answer is most likely wrong, or at least not quite right. Even though they’re not really listening to your advice, and even if they are, they’re unlikely to follow it anyway. Even though all that is happening, it’s still lovely.

Because when you’re giving advice, you’re in control. You have the higher status in the relationship, what Edgar Schein would call “one up” and what neuroscience tell us is the preferred state of things. You’ve got certainty about how this conversation is going to go and how it’s going to end, and you’ve got that warm, fuzzy feeling of “adding value.”

When you ask a question, things shift into a place of ambiguity. As soon as you ask a question, uncertainty arises. Was that a good question? Was it the right question? Why have they waited longer than half a second to answer it? Is this really helpful? Am I doing my job? What if they don’t want to answer a question, they just want the answer?

And what’s even more destabilizing, you’ve handed control of the conversation to the other person. The price you pay for empowerment is giving up power. They get to decide the answer. And what if it’s a terrible answer? What if you don’t know how to handle their answer? What if they don’t have an answer?

So why would you put yourself through all of that?

Servant Leadership And Coaching

It’s been almost 50 years since Robert K. Greenleaf introduced the idea of servant leadership, and as a concept it’s in a place of ebb rather than flow. However, its central tenant will strike a chord. It frames leadership as an act where other people’s needs are being served, what the Arbinger Institute would call an outward mindset.

When servant leadership is at its best, those being served both expand their potential and fulfill it, and in turn become servant leaders themselves.

Which brings us back to Whitmore’s definition of coaching: “Unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”

Build A Coaching Habit

Anyone who’s suffered through the performance appraisal process — which I’m guessing is you, me and everyone else reading this — is likely delighted that a new dawn is rising. It’s still early days, and who knows how this might evolve.

But it’s a good guess that essential to this new approach to engaging and supporting people is having managers being more coach-like. Better at asking questions, better at giving feedback.

It doesn’t work just to decree that and hope it’s going to happen. You’ve got to help managers see how this can be of service to them as well as to those they lead. And then you’ve got to help them build a coaching habit.

Thought you’d enjoy this!
Coach Sok
[This article first appeared on]

For more on performance evaluations see:


  1. Hello, I couldn’t find an email address on this blog, so I’m commenting here.  I’m the marketing head for, and this article was written by Michael Bungay Stanier as a guest post for the Resourceful Manager. We always allow people to use Michael’s articles, as long as there is proper attribution. In this case, the copyright belongs to the Resourceful Manager. (As indicated here: ). Please update this post to clearly indicate that Michael is the author, and link back to the original post on the Resourceful Manager. Please contact John Walston at john [@] for permission.


  2. I have to weigh in in this one as good police officer performance appraisal has been a decades long personnel quest of mine. In my other teaching life, with a major university entity that has been training police command staff for decades, we approach the performance appraisal problem with the words of a notable risk management professional who, speaking as a lawyer, says, “If you have a performance appraisal system now, stop using it. If you have past performance appraisal records, burn them. If you store old performance appraisal records elsewhere, burn down the building.”
    Why might he say this? Because we just can’t get it right for many of the reasons here presented. PAs are the curse of police leaders trying to “improve policing.”

    In this light, however, I would pose the following question: In the absence of a system that formally recognizes the skills, talents, abilities and failings of cops how do we satisfy the need for accountability? Police officers are invested with tremendous power and authority over our citizens. The need for accountability can not be understated. Deming never addressed this, and in fairness he had no reason to do so as it illustrates the great divide between private and public management.

    Here is my idea. We identify the specific behaviors, skills and abilities that outstanding police officers display every day. Those things that have been generally identified in the Presidents Task Force report and elsewhere. Then we set-up a non-punitive, non-coercive and voluntary system of what I like to refer to as “Relentless Pressure Constantly Applied” by which our future law enforcement leaders can demonstrate their commitment to the behaviors, skills and abilities of outstanding police officers. No one in policing rises above the rank of patrol officer unless they participate in this new system called the “Police Officer Accountability and Professional Development Process.”


    1. We may be talking about the same things. Don’t call if “performance evaluation,” don’t do it AFTER the fact but WHILE IT IS HAPPENING. Records are okay,just make them real-time and coach and grow your men and women to success.


  3. We should get rid of performance evaluations in the military as well. I heard that at the military academies like West Point, your fellow cadets would write daily evaluations on you without your knowledge and there was no way to refute those reports especially on things like leadership skills. How are you suppose to develop leadership skills when those cadets and the regular army staff don’t spend any time and resources helping you to get them?

    Another thing about evaluation reports is that they are full of bias. I know some people who were rated highly when they were actually pretty bad leaders (even though they had serve in leadership positions for years and none the wiser). The only reason why they receive good evaluations was because they were bootlicker and were pet favorites of the bosses; therefore, they kept moving up the promotion ladder and there was not a thing you could do about it and then you wonder why people don’t bother to do a good job when there was no motivation to do so. Its not what you know, it is who you know and how well you can play the game. The radio host Norman Goldman stated that judges are politicans in robes. Well you can say that about police officers particulary high ranking ones – politicans wearing a badge and carrying a gun.

    I think another reason why bosses don’t want to teach people is because they themselves don’t have the techniclal skills, the leadership skills, and because of office politices. The last thing bad leaders want is having to deal with competition from other leaders and their subordinates in a game of cut throat politics.


  4. Another problem with is being able to get any kind of training to help you get that job. If a boss doesn’t want you to get the training because you are in the wrong job classification even though you want to lateral transfer to another job classification that has the same pay scale or even higher than your current job, he/she is not going to do it.


  5. It is the role of leaders to set performance expectations. Now, who is best positioned to judge performance?

    I have administered 360 degree multi-rater feedback systems in police organizations. My experiences doing that have convinced me of one thing: for the most part leaders are clueless about their subordinates’ performance unless that performance stands out at either end of the spectrum. So how do they evaluate the middle 94%? They usually just try to write something that is acceptable to HR and helps or does not harm the subordinate.

    I am convinced that the best form of feedback would come from peers and/or subordinates/clients. Research has shown that the peer evaluations of soldiers attending the Special Forces Selection and Assessment course (must be completed in order to attend the Special Forces Qualification Course) were better predictors of future performance as a Special Forces solider than the evaluations of the Special Forces training cadre. Research in Israeli police academies found similar results. Feedback should be gathered and provided for developmental purposes only. Once any form of reward or punishment is attached to the system the level of candor will drop.


  6. I would be somewhat careful about feedback from peers since sometimes they will sabotage you so they can get ahead not to mention their own prejudices and their own old boy/old girl clubs.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.