Performance Reviews: Are Adjectives Really Better Than Numerical Ratings?

Eileen AzzaraFeedback, Performance Management

performance reviews
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The redefining of performance reviews and the feedback that goes along with them continue to challenge HR. Companies are continuing to drop or revamp their performance reviews. Some changes are more drastic than others. I recently found this SHRM article describing how some organizations are shifting their performance reviews to be adjective-based as a replacement for the now-doomed numerical rating scale. Surely words are better than numbers! The rationale is that adjectives are more personal than numbers, provide more information, and therefore increase employee motivation.

Are adjectives really better than numbers? Feedback, whether for performance management or development, is only effective if it’s actionable. An adjective is just one word. Even if employees are provided with a set of adjectives, which it sounds like will be the case in these organizations, it will be a set of descriptive words rather than specific behavioral indicators.

Replacing numbers with adjectives could be counterproductive and perhaps risky. In addition to increasing subjectivity, there is greater potential for feedback to be taken personally, reduced likelihood for follow-up action, and possible adverse implications for diversity efforts.

Why Adjectives Are No Better than Numbers for Performance Reviews

1. Totally subjective. Adjectives mean different things to different people.

Even if you’re not using numbers, performance ratings still need to be reliable and valid. You need to be evaluating people in similar jobs on the same criteria, and that criteria needs to be tied to job performance. Years ago numerical rating scales replaced descriptive ratings as a means of bringing more objectivity to the ratings process, so today’s shift to adjective-based ratings is not a new concept. The same problems still exist though: adjectives are completely subjective and the same word can mean different things to different people, especially across different professions. For example, if you are told you are “aggressive”, what would your first reaction be? Would you take it positively or negatively? Maybe positively if you’re in sales, but perhaps negatively if you’re a doctor or nurse. In contrast, rating people with behaviors that can be observed or measured provides a frame of reference that can minimize interpretative differences. “You cut off conversations with your patients too early” is more clear than “you’re aggressive.”

2. Lack of Developmental Information

One of the greatest problems with feedback is the lack of action employees engage in after receiving it. Feedback provided in the form of adjectives rather than behaviors makes it difficult to determine the specific actions people should start or stop demonstrating if they want to improve. Even worse, they might take the wrong action or one that doesn’t need to be taken. For example, continuing with the feedback that an employee is “aggressive”, suppose she is a skip tracer and therefore thinks that feedback is positive. She continues to do what she’s been doing. However, the truth is she has been too aggressive, going beyond her scope of authority with the good intention of meeting her goals. To change her behavior, she needs to know which of her actions have been appropriate and which have not.

3. Personal / Emotional Reaction

It’s intriguing that there’s a belief that employees will hold less disdain for ratings in the form of a one-word label than they have for numerical ratings. Adjectives have perceived value attached to them just as numbers do. Would you rather be deemed “restrained,” or “charismatic?” How about “empathetic” versus “self-concerned?” With no behavior to provide context, all the recipient has to judge the value is the general perception associated with the word.  It’s classic labeling, and once a label has been assigned it’s difficult to change perceptions.  Picture your employees wearing their labels like the people in this video. Is that what you’re striving for?

4. Diversity Implications

When you’re not using observable behaviors to set the standard for performance, your criteria are more prone to unconscious biases. Researchers at Stanford University recently reported on a study that found women were more likely to receive vague, inactionable feedback than men, which ultimately held them back from promotion.  Without standardized criteria to reduce the effects of unconscious bias, it is easy for leaders to apply different standards to employees doing similar work. So, if your organization seeks to increase diversity among its leadership ranks, focusing on adjectives at the expense of specific, outcome-focused feedback may be detrimental to your cause.

That’s probably not what you want from your performance reviews.

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