Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 218
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Capturing the Essence of Performance

Researcher demonstrates an improved performance appraisal system.

Once upon a time, we tried to improve performance by telling people our impressions of them: "You're an outstanding worker," "You're a pretty good worker," "You're a disgrace to your family," and so on. We swelled a few heads and we broke a few hearts. Some people worked harder, and some people stopped working altogether. This was the beginning of performance appraisal.

Some time later, we recognized that a clear understanding of the duties of a job was necessary to fairly evaluate a person's performance. This led to job analysis studies, job grading, and so on. Unfortunately, it also led our employees to answer "That's not my job" to our requests that they help us with problems that threaten our businesses.

"Well perhaps it's not," managers often grumble, "but wouldn't it be nice if we could all work together and just do the best we can?"

Performance appraisal experts called this progress.

Theresa Welbourne, from Cornell University, is an expert in performance appraisal, and she noted a new trend in recent years. The rapid pace of change has created a need for employees to continuously develop new skills to use on new problems that frequently arise. For performance appraisal to fulfill its mandate to improve performance, it must stimulate this growth and then assess its impact upon performance when it is needed. That's quite a challenge.

Professor Welbourne devised a performance appraisal system she named role-based performance appraisal, and she recently conducted a validation study of this new system.

Welbourne believes five roles capture the essence of performance: 1) job holder role, 2) organization role, 3) career role, 4) team role, and 5) innovator role.

The job holder role represents the traditionally held view of employee performance. The organization role involves behaviors managers label organizational citizenship, such as providing unsolicited help outside one's own area of responsibility.

The career role reflects an employee's own efforts to increase his/her value to an employer by developing new skills, for example, computer literacy. The team role recognizes that most work is accomplished through the intricate cooperation of groups of people. Behaviors reflecting and supporting such cooperation fulfill a team role.

Finally, the innovator role involves noticing ways the organization as a whole can be more productive. Useful improvement suggestions illustrate this role.

Welbourne selected five companies to test her new system. She asked managers in each company to complete it for their employees, and then she compared its results to their existing performance appraisal systems. Since one goal of performance appraisal is to measure performance, she examined several outcomes of performance and then noted which performance appraisal system better predicted those who would achieve these outcomes.

For example, pay is an outcome for employees, and Ms. Welbourne's system successfully identified the varying levels of both standard pay rates and incentive payments. That is, employees scoring poorly on the five rating categories received relatively lower pay, and those scoring high received higher pay. The companies' existing performance appraisal systems failed to predict these differing pay levels.

Ms. Welbourne's investigations also included pay satisfaction, suggestion-making activity, hours worked, and satisfaction with incentive programs. In each case, her system successfully identified employee outcomes while existing systems in these companies could not do it.

The conclusion for the companies in the study, and for us, is unmistakable. The five roles in Professor Welbourne's system do a better job of capturing the essence of performance than the systems we're using now. We can keep these roles in mind as we work with our people and influence their development. Also, future revisions of our performance appraisal systems should reflect this finding.

Reference: Welbourne, Theresa M., Diane Johnson, and Amir Erez (1998) The Role-Based Performance Scale: Validity Analysis of a Theory-Based Measure. Academy of Management Journal, 41(5), 540-555.

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