Should a ScrumMaster (or any coach) Give Performance Appraisals?

(c) 2007-2010 Esther Derby

A ScrumMaster recently asked me if he should take over responsibility for year-end performance evaluations since he was closer to the work than the functional manager for the team. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this question, and as more companies begin to use Scrum, I’m sure I’ll hear it again.

It does make sense for a ScrumMaster to give feedback. But when it comes to taking over (or participating in) the annual appraisal, ratings, or rankings, my answer is “No. No. No!” There’s a fundamental conflict between coaching to improve effectiveness and evaluating for ratings, rankings, raises, or promotion.

Yearly appraisals, performance reviews, and evaluations emphasize hierarchy and differences in status. ScrumMasters are in service to the team; they don’t manage the team. Creating a higher status position (evaluator) is an impediment to the team self-organizing—and to the team learning how to give each other feedback and manage their own performance.

People who receive high ratings may bask in the glow of affirmation. However, psychologists know that 80 percent of people believe their performance is above average. Statistically that can’t be true; yet, on an emotional level, that is what most people believe. When people receive a lower rating (or an unexpected rating), they focus on the reasons they deserve a better rating. That impedes honest discussion about skills and behavior.

A number or letter rating doesn’t provide sufficient information for a person to know what or how to change. Even when the rating or ranking is followed by a description of specific behaviors, the person on the receiving end is focused on “the number,” (and the reasons they deserve a different number). That’s a barrier to improvement.

When people only have serious conversations about performance once a year (or even once a quarter) it leaves too much time for problems to fester. Why let a problem continue? Why suppress team productivity? When a team member is doing something that’s detrimental to the team, the time to tell him is now. When a team member’s work isn’t what it needs to be, the time to tell him is now. When people receive that information long after the fact they wonder, “Why didn’t he tell me sooner? Doesn’t he want me to succeed?” That erodes trust, and trust is a prerequisite for effective coaching.

Participating in individual rating telegraphs the message: “I say we’re a team, but I don’t really mean it. I’m still looking at individual performance, not team accomplishment.” That undermines the ScrumMaster’s role in improving productivity, helping the team self-organize, and improving the life of the team.

“But,” you may say, “the ScrumMaster is closest to the day-to-day performance of people on the team.”

That’s true. So, by all means give feedback on day-to-day performance and patterns of behavior. Provide clear, specific information about what you observe. Help people understand the impact their behavior and work results have on the team. That’s information that will help team members make choices to continually improve their skills, professionalism, and contribution to the team. By all means, coach people as they learn new skills. Help the team learn to self-organize by holding up a mirror on their processes and challenge them to think and decide on their own.

The ScrumMaster and team members know how each other are performing. When the ScrumMaster and the team are committed to giving each other congruent feedback, there’s no need for a performance evaluation: people know how they are doing and are working to improve every day.

What can you do if, as a ScrumMaster, you are pressured to provide input for a performance review? Explain that you have been giving feedback throughout the year (or quarter). Give examples of how you have provided feedback and seen changes day-to-day (without naming names).

Don’t provide feedback for the manager to pass along, even if it’s feedback you’ve already given to the other person. The manager won’t have the context to provide clarification or answer questions. “Pass along” feedback—especially when it’s new information—creates a tattletale dynamic. The recipient of pass along feedback wonders why the ScrumMaster didn’t give the feedback directly, and that damages relationships. Explain to the manager that everything that needs to be said has already been said directly.

Explain that the work is interdependent, so it’s impossible to pull apart individual contribution. You are focusing on improving the performance of the team and that individual performance evaluation will detract from that focus.

Create a team performance review where the team members discuss how the team is doing and where the team needs to improve. Do this as a face-to-face discussion, not through anonymous comments or ratings (I’ll say more about how to do this in a future column). Provide the team’s own assessment of their performance to the manager. The manager can then choose how to apply that assessment in the mandated performance appraisal process.

Managers believe they must engage in the ritual of annual evaluation—because they’ve always done it. HR may have targets for percentage of reviews completed. Neither has a thing to do with actually improving performance. Individual performance evaluations and annual reviews are an impediment. Steer clear of them—they are a vestige of command and control that Scrum can do without.

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