Performance Without Appraisal: Addressing the Most Common Concerns

©2007-2010 Esther Derby

The idea of merit rating is alluring. The sound of the words captivates the imagination: pay for what you get; get what you pay for;motivate people to do their best, for their own good.

The effect is exactly the opposite of what the words promise. Everyone propels himself forward, or tries to, for his own good, on his own life preserver. The organization is the loser.

Merit rating rewards people who do well within the system. It does not reward attempts to improve the system.

W. Edwards Deming in Out of the Crisis

In an earlier column, I suggested that ScrumMasters should steer clear of annual performance reviews. Rating and ranking individuals interferes with a ScrumMaster’s responsibilities as a coach in service to the team. In fact, I went further than that: I suggested that managers and the rest of us steer clear of performance reviews, as well.

My suggestion does run counter to widespread practice. But I’m not alone in questioning performance evaluations and rankings.

W. Edwards Deming identified performance appraisal as one of the Seven Deadly Diseases of Management. Deming is clear and concise in stating the negative effects of performance appraisals and merit ratings: “It nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, nourishes rivalry and politics.” [Deming p. 102]

More recently, Stanford University professors Robert Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer combed through data and studies related to widespread management practices. They reference a survey of 200 human resource professionals which reports that forced ranking—a common component of performance appraisal programs?results in “lower productivity, inequity and skepticism, negative effects on employee engagement, reduced collaboration, and damage to morale and mistrust of leadership.” [Pfeffer and Sutton, p. 107] They go on to describe the damage done by merit pay plans.

In short, the evidence supporting the benefits of rating, ranking, and then tying pay to the rating—the stuff of performance evaluations—is thin to none. Deming had it right.

My readers did raise legitimate concerns:

Without performance appraisals…

How do we determine how much to pay people?

How do we know who to promote or fire?

How do people know they need to improve?

Organizations do need answers to these questions. Performance appraisals and pay-for-performance (PFP) aren’t the only way to answer those questions, or even the best way. In this column, I’ll walk through some alternatives to the prevailing practice.

How do we determine how much to pay people?

One reader pointed out, “people get their salaries on an individual basis.” True. Tying annual salary actions to ratings and rankings is just one way to determine what those actions should be. There are other rational and non-capricious ways to adjust individual salaries:

  • Adjust based on the cost of living so that the buying power of salaries keeps pace with economic conditions.
  • Allow all employees to share in the company’s success through profit sharing.
  • Adjust salaries based on the current market rate for skills and roles.

Another reader posed the rhetorical question, “So all certified scrum masters earn the same amount?”

Performance is a function of the person and the environment. Systems thinking and lean production at Toyota tell us that gains in productivity come from inspecting and adapting the system, not from focusing on individual performance. An improvement mindset, thinking for the long term, eliminating waste, respect for people, and removing impediments bring high performance.

Still, there are people who are clearly outstanding performers (both outstandingly good and outstandingly poor), who outperform the limits of the system. Once again, pay increases based on performance ratings is only one way to accomplish the goal of recognizing outstanding individuals.

People—and their jobs—evolve over time. A ScrumMaster may start off coaching a team on the basics of Scrum, and over time, take a bigger role working on systemic issues that hinder the team. Or he may develop exceptional coaching skills. If someone is truly performing above others within the same job it may be time to promote him or reclassify his job so that it’s at a higher pay level.

How do we know who to promote or fire?

Other readers asked, “Without yearly ratings, how will we know who to promote?” Looking at how a person has evolved in his job and the level of responsibilities is one way. Another option is to treat promotions as

seriously as hiring: create a rigorous internal application process that involves interviews and auditions.

The truth is that many outstanding performers aren’t doing it for the money. They stay for love of their work and are most rewarded by new and challenging assignments.

The reverse question came up, too: “How will we know who to fire?”

It doesn’t take a rating to fire someone. If someone isn’t doing his job, there’s no reason to keep him on the payroll until the annual review cycle comes around. A ScrumMaster will know when someone isn’t doing his job or is making it harder for other people to do their jobs. He can coach the person, or if coaching is not or is no longer an option, work with a functional manager to move the person off the team. (Some teams manage their own team membership, and people who need to go move off the team, without a manager’s involvement.) And, poor performers will hang onto a job even if they aren’t receiving raises. They won’t be improving, though. They’ll be harboring resentment and telling themselves that they really are above average.

As with identifying outstanding good performers, consider the environment, as well as individual skills. Ask whether someone is truly underperforming, or whether the system is limiting his performance.

I spoke with a new agile coach recently who was beginning to doubt he was in the right role. “I just can’t get this group moving in the right direction,” he said. “Maybe I should go back to being a developer.”

When he described the situation to me in detail, I began to wonder if any new coach could move this group in the right direction. The project has several stakeholders who disagree about the direction of product. The team is split into three factions, which swirl around a long standing conflict between two team members. One member of the team is skeptical of agile methods and baits the coach at every opportunity. When he’s not baiting the coach, he’s working to bring other team members to his point of view. The new coach is struggling in his job. The person who is supposed to mentor him is missing in action. I don’t think firing him—or giving him a low rating—is the answer.

It would be more fruitful (and more difficult) to look at the system that assigned a brand new coach to this project and failed to provide support.

How do people know they need to improve?

How will people know they need to improve if they don’t have an annual review? The answer to this question is simple (though not easy): their ScrumMaster will tell them.

A letter or number rating or ranking is an evaluation. It may tell someone he needs to improve, but it doesn’t tell him what specifically he needs to do differently. In order to improve, people need clear behavioral descriptions and they need to understand the impact of behavior or results. Some managers provide specific examples along with the letter or number evaluation grade. However, most humans resist labels, so they may be busy with the emotional response to the rating, and not ready to fully listen as the manger gives examples.

Scrum runs on frequent feedback loops. That includes feedback to people on their work interactions and work results. Feedback on an annual cycle is worse than useless and is totally out of congruence with agile methods.

When organizations adopt Scrum, sooner or later they bump up against the problems caused by asking people to work collaboratively and then measuring and rewarding them for individual effort. But Scrum is all about making issues visible, so we can inspect and adapt. The time has come look at the evidence about pay and appraisal systems. We may want to succumb to the allure of the “merit pay” words, but performance appraisals are a barrier to delivering valuable software; it’s time for them to go.

Further Reading

Out of the Crisis. W. Edwards Deming

Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-based Management. Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert
I. Sutton

An Alternative to the Yearly Performance Review by moi.

Should a Scrum Master Give Performance Appraisals by moi.

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11 thoughts on “Performance Without Appraisal: Addressing the Most Common Concerns

  1. Hi Esther,

    Great post. But I think there’s another element to the forced rankings – secrecy.

    In many organizations, it is not allowed to talk about your salary, compensation, benefits, etc, to the point of being a fireable offense. This also means that the rankings are secret.

    I think that the secrecy is there for the mediocre managers to not have to face the employees. In most any case of force ranking the ranking system wasn’t the dysfunction – the organization was. The ranking system was merely a reflection of the overall culture.

    Now imagine this (courtesy of some of the ideals of Sembler):

    1) Everyone is reviewed on a regular basis – monthly ideally or more often.

    2) These reviews are separate from pay increases

    3) Pay increases are done by performance and through a ranking system, but people are allowed to share a rank

    4) The results are published for the entire team / department to see.

    5) People are *not* surprised by the rankings since they’ve been reviewed on a frequent basis with open and honest discussions

    6) Those that are surprised have open conversations with the manager about the ranking and how to improve past that

    Even though I don’t like ranking systems, I bet many of us would be Ok with something along those lines. Would you?

    1. Q: “Even though I don’t like ranking systems, I bet many of us would be Ok with something along those lines. Would you?”

      A: No.

      I agree that people need frequent feedback so they can learn and improve. Ideally, you build feedback into the work (as several of the XP engineering practices do), so there’s a tight loop. Of course, that’s only one type of feedback. People also need feedback about working relationships and overall results on a regular and frequent basis–from peers, customers, and managers.

      But ranking serves no useful purpose. It denies the reality that each person is unique and makes unique contributions. It promotes competition. It hurts the soul.

      What if everyone is performing competently? What earthly good can it do to tell someone he’s least valued, least competent, least good at what ever?

      1. Excellent point. But even if we aren’t explicit about it, don’t we still rank people? In your article above, you admit there are people that outperform others. They rank hire on the “performance” scale, and deserve to “promote him or reclassify his job”.

        It’s a tough balance, I know, because the last thing I want to do is encourage heroics in teams. I’ve seen first-hand how much that can destroy them.

        It’s my assertion that even if you don’t use explicit rankings, reclassification and promotions do effectively the same thing, and will cause the same problems in an organization which is not transparent about it’s practices, salaries and compensation. Or do you not consider promotions and reclassifications as part of that?

      2. What if everyone is performing competently, but due to
        budget cuts you are forced to get rid of someone?

        1. Look at the current work and the near term anticipated work and use that to guide the decision.

          Or, if you don’t care about being strategic about it, ask who wants the layoff package.

  2. A great post Esther.

    When Deming was asked ‘What do I do about appraisals?’, he answered ‘Ask Peter Scholtes’. So I’d recommend that anyone interested in this subject should read Chapter 9 (Performance without Appraisal) from Scholtes ‘The Leaders Handbook’; McGraw Hill.

    Another book that I’ve found very helpful is ‘Abolishing Performance Appraisals – Why they backfire and what to do instead’ by Tom Coens and Mary Jenkins; Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

    Both books cover the areas that you mention in your post and more.

    Kind regards


    1. Hi, Glyn –

      Yes, I really like both the Coens and Jenkins book and the Scholtes book. Excellent resources. Thanks for pointing them out for the people who come across this post.

      Thanks for stopping by.


  3. I agree with many parts of the article, except that it substitutes many management roles with the scrum coach/master. If the agile process you are following is providing clear feedback each individual team member(and the team) will know who is contributing or not. With feedback the individual can choose to learn or the team itself will likely make it uncomfortable for them.

    If we create a specialist Scrum Coach master that works on a team is that really any different from a project manager?

    I am a PM and was privileged to work with a team that became self-actualized. They didn’t need me to police the team, the process or interact with the customers. They did need me to provide cover with management and remove obstacles.

    1. Rick –

      Errr. not sure what you mean “substitutes many management roles with the scrum coach/master.”

      My advice is that scrum masters and coaches steer clear of the usual run of performance evaluations and performance management systems. And that organizations get rid of those de-humanizing practices.

      Of course, when people have information about their performance– thru feedback directly from the work or from people who are directly involved in working with them–they can make choices.

      I do see Project Manager as a very different role than coach. You may have had the title of Project Manager, but it doesn’t sound like you were acting it out in the traditional way.

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