Friday, March 03, 2020

The Slow Art of Forming a Judgment

I am not in favor of the annual charade known as the performance appraisal. Of all the dubious aspects of command-and-control management, it is the most malignant in purpose and result. Thousands of people find their future career prospects at the mercy of harassed superiors with neither the time nor inclination to form more than a superficial assessment of their talents, based on ill-informed or subjective opinion. Expressing the complexity of another human being on some ill-defined rating scale is impossible anyway.

Yet managers must reach judgments all the time. It's an essential part of their role. But haste and good judgment rarely go together, despite the trendy idea that people’s best decisions are those they scarcely think about. People have always made snap judgments—right back to Eve and that smooth-talking serpent—but the outcome has more often been regret than satisfaction. Instant opinions must still have some basis. They do not arrive out of thin air. And while it’s comforting to believe your subconscious mind has been doing all the work in advance, the reality is simpler. Instant choices are emotional—and emotions are notorious for being a poor basis for serious judgments—and draw heavily on stereotypes. If people are prone to making up our minds about other people within seconds, that’s not a tribute to exceptional powers of observation and discrimination. What are the first impressions you trust so calmly based on? Mostly folk wisdom (his eyes are too close together); suppressed memories (she reminds me of cousin Ermintrude—and no one liked her); or the effects of the extraloaded pizza you ate too quickly for lunch.

Judgment takes time and care. A slow leadership approach is different to the form-filling, numerically based inanities of annual appraisal that disfigure too many organizations.

Observation—lengthy, careful and deliberate observation—must be the first stage. No one can come to a sensible opinion about another person’s abilities based on impressions formed with neither care nor attention while attending to other business matters. Such opinions must be little more than casual impressions, yet the form the basis for most appraisal ratings. Has the supervisor spent time focusing only on following the subordinate in a wide range of business circumstances? Has she tested and retested those observations? Has she considered the exact circumstances and weighed the likely impact of external events? Unless she has, her opinion isn't soundly formed. She needs more time.

Next, there is the question of what our imaginary supervisor is looking for. Are the criteria for proper performance clear? Has she communicated them fully? In my experience, the expectations many managers have for their subordinates’ performance are neither clearly understood (even by the managers themselves) nor openly shared. Misaligned expectations make a mockery of statements about current abilities, let alone long-term potential.

The wise manager learns first to appreciate and only much later to pass criticism. Snap judgments are always extreme—they cannot be subtle, since subtlety needs time—and more likely to be negative than favorable. Our evolutionary past is to blame. Early humans faced a dangerous world, where a small wound, a chance meeting with a wild animal, or meeting another human with a bad temper, could lead to extinction. People who fretted, worried and distrusted others were more likely to survive and pass on those traits. Looking for the good in a saber-toothed tiger, or in Ug from the next village, was much riskier that assuming both were mean, murderous and looking for a chance to make you into a meal.

Relations between primitive societies are usually hostile, just as they are between departments in a modern corporation, and for the same reason. You get hurt less often that way. However, leadership needs the leader to use his or her people to best advantage—to bring them to a point where they can deliver their full abilities. That can’t happen if all the leader allows himself to see is their faults and failings.

Criticism also produces distance, and distance is fatal to sound understanding. The best leaders make sure they put themselves as close to the action as possible, where they can see what may be blocking progress and how people respond. Shallow, inept leaders stay safely well behind the lines, issuing critical judgments from afar and engaging in the far more profitable (and physically safer) business of office politics. If you’re part of the action and things start to go wrong, people may expect you to do something about it. How much easier to keep well away and criticize what you didn’t have to do yourself.

Leadership is the process of helping others to do better, through direction, advice and training. Passing judgment after the event is essentially worthless, compared with being right there while events might still be changed for the better. A performance appraisal is an exercise in writing history—or, at least, fitting it into preset categories. Leadership is making history in the moments while events and outcomes are still malleable.

For the Slow Leader, exercising judgment depends first on careful and lengthy observation. He or she constantly shares expectations and explains standards. The Slow Leader Is right there, part of the action, understanding people’s abilities and continually giving their counsel, help and encouragement. Only when an event is past and dead can any final judgment be made; by then, the leader’s role is over and the historian’s has come. Armchair strategists may love to chew over what might or should have been, but the leader is already far ahead where events are still current and there are victories and reputations to be won.

Snap judgments, lordly criticisms and the paraphernalia of paper appraisals are marks of leadership amateurs. Professionals don’t waste time on them. Their time and attention is kept for actions that can still make a difference to the outcome.

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Neal said...

Manager Tools ( is a strong proponent of what you are suggesting - it takes time (and some effort) to evluate your team, and when you wait until the last minute (and rush to judge), you cannot help but do a disservice to yourself and the people who depend on your feedback.

9:26 AM  
Todd said...

I really agree with you on the value of time being put into an evaluation. While it is important to understand exactly how somebody performs, it can be quite taxing to find the precise levels. (If it's even possible.)

There is a delicate balance between the two.

3:14 AM  

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