One Size Doesn’t Fit All

July 25, 2014

By: Allison Sheehan

I’m always amazed when I walk into a store and read the label on a piece of clothing to see the size, and the tag simply reads “one size fits all.” I specifically remember the first time I saw one of these labels–I was young, with my mom. The piece of clothing was a Disney nightgown, and there was only one size that claimed to “fit all.” I remember looking up at my mom, wondering how this gown could possibly fit both her and me. There was no way it was going to fit her adult body and my eight-year-old body. The only way she could describe it was that there was only one size made for everyone to fit into, and it would just fit everyone differently, or realistically, some wouldn’t fit into it at all.

This idea of “one size fits all” is used outside of the clothing world, specifically in performance management.  For example, many schools grade on the curve. And unless you are at a small school or have a close relationship with your professor, you are simply a number that falls on that curve to even out the distribution. Some students will end up on top, and others will land on the bottom of the curve. This is used as a way to differentiate the “excellent” students from the “failing” or below average students. There are many arguments both for and against the curve, but a lot of the disputes are caused by the cutthroat competition it creates, and how systematic it is. A student who works very hard and puts all her effort into a class may still end up on the lower end of the curve, whereas the student for whom the material comes easily won’t work as hard and still find herself at the high end of the curve. The professor will never know the difference of their work ethics, and neither student will know exactly why she did so well or so poorly. The only mark of performance is the final letter grade.

This idea also holds true in many companies with annual performance reviews. At the end of the year, employees receive a report that may be rated by numbers or by words. Just like the curve in school, this can be used for companies to measure their employees, to decide which ones will get promoted or receive a pay raise and which ones won’t. These performance reviews are usually a very tense time, because individuals are worried about what their report may say. And even the employees who receive their review back with a good number or word may still feel unsatisfied. It’s great to be at the top of the scale, but to not know why you’re at the top can be frustrating. For example, a friend of mine described once getting a performance review back, and seeing that he got “excellent.” He was happy to receive this mark, however he was still left unsatisfied because he didn’t receive any comments along with this word, so he didn’t know the areas in which he could improve or in which he excelled. On the other hand, it can also be very frustrating to receive an “unsatisfactory” mark, and to not know what you did wrong. These reports can sometimes feel impersonal and make you feel like a number or word. And while some people like to receive this kind of feedback and performance review, or like to be graded on a curve, others do not. The one standard of grading a student or employee does not “fit all.”

Last week, Chris Murchison talked with the CPO Summer Fellows. Chris is Vice President and head of Staff Development and Culture at HopeLab. He talked about performance management, and facilitated an open discussion on what people thought about it. There were different opinions, but many agreed that they wished it wasn’t such a stressful thing, and that it could be viewed as a way to catch up with your boss, and to see what they’ve done really well that year, what they need to work on, and any questions they had. Many wished it could be viewed as a conversation or dialogue, versus a report or meeting.

Chris described the way his company handles performance management at HopeLab. They don’t do annual reports, or give each employee a final yearly number. Instead, they have an “annual conversation” with their employees. This is “a process crafted to inspire reflection and future focused thinking about life and work.” This conversation takes place between the employee and his/her boss in “a setting conducive to expansive and generative thinking.” This meeting has nothing to do with compensation decisions, and replaces the traditional annual performance evaluation. Chris described his last “annual conversation” as one of the most interesting days that he’s had, filled with great conversation with his boss. This process makes the annual evaluation process more relaxed and allows room for employees to feel safe in their space and open for growth. HopeLab allows their employees to decide where to facilitate these conversations and how to do them, because there isn’t a single way to do them that pleases everyone, or that is conducive to learning for everyone.

So is performance management a bad thing? That’s up for discussion, and depends on who you’re talking to. Still, there’s something to be said about personalizing a workplace, and allowing for conversation with employees versus giving them a final number or word at the end of the year. This allows people to feel more valuable and listened to, rather than just a number on a flat page. There are many ways to discuss performance with someone, and in order to be effective, it’s important to figure out which type of review will be most conducive to growth for that person.

Just like there was no way that Disney gown was going to fit both my mom and me, there is no one way to rate an employee or student on his or her work.

Allison just finished her freshman year in the College of Literature, Science, & the Arts. She heard about the Center from a Peer Advisor and was drawn to it because of its new and unique way of looking at organizations. Now she is part of the Social Media and Blogging Team as a Summer Fellow. She is excited to be a part of the fellows program and the environment and to learn about all of the aspects of the Center’s work, while discovering how to put positive meaning and leadership into the workplace.