I have a vivid memory of a self-evaluation from my undergrad days at McGill. We had to take a writing course, which must have been a cross-cultural exercise for the Faculty of English instructors that ventured into the Business building for these weekly encounters. There was a self-evaluation at the end of it, which, if I recall correctly, included a pre-amble that encouraged reflection on your development over the 12 weeks, as well as your ability compared to your classmates. I think I may have been guilted into responding “B+” and admitting that I could really have done more. I talked to classmates afterwards, some of whom skipped a number of classes. Their responses were “A. Can I give myself an A+?” (Note: A+ was not an option. McGill operated on the U.S. 4-point GPA system.)
This is a very obvious example of the challenges of “self-evaluations.” Self-attribution bias leads us to truly believe that we excel. Self-preservation instincts dampen the guilt of over stating the truth because these results can create positive future options or avoid negative future outcomes. For the undergrad business student, “strong marks = better job opportunities upon graduation” so, go for the A. In a business context, if staffing cuts are looming, do you really want to have a mediocre self-evaluation in the HR file?! I wonder how many of my fellow graduates, decades into their business careers, have grown to learn that actual strength in writing provides a significant advantage in the workplace.
The self-evaluation brings the performer’s perspective into the discussion, which is absolutely crucial and applies to an organizational context. In addition to “perspective,” objectivity is also vital and this is enabled by clear criteria. The healthiest criteria mix features both “what you do” (e.g. somewhat controllable; gets at “how” your get results) and “what you accomplish” (e.g. somewhat more impacted by external factors; focussed on outcomes).
The evaluation becomes less of an assault on the ego if we can validate that someone did “what was expected” even if they did not “achieve expected results.” This demands some time and effort up front to go through the exercise of making logical connections between activity and results. You have to be ready for a reasoned conversation about what drives performance.
“How are we doing?” is a big question
For an organization, the questions about “what results do you want to achieve?” and “what do you think gives the best chance at achieving those results?” are really big questions that bring out some deep-seeded assumptions. A good strategic discussion will expose these and will explore some of the big decisions behind some of our assumptions. This should surface options to move forward rather than a clear best way. Imagine interactions where people say, “We said we are trying to reduce T&E, so we can’t fly everyone down for this meeting,” OR “We said that our focus was growing our business with our top-tier accounts, so we can’t get too anxious because we lost some tier-3 business.”
Like anything, involvement breeds acceptance, so it makes sense to have a senior-team conversation to tease out relevant expected outcomes and relevant expected actions. When you are involved in creating your own report card, the evaluation feels less daunting. This may turn down the volume on the “self-attribution bias” and the “self-preservation instinct.”