The Downward Spiral of Measuring People’s Performance

by Stacey Barr |

Can you prove that measuring and monitoring people’s performance actually does improve the performance of the organisation? I’ll be you can’t. A very fundamental dynamic prevents it.

A staircase descending into a downward spiral towards darkness

Using measures to monitor people generally means that a manager has selected some measures of someone’s productivity or effectiveness or efficiency or skills, or whatever. And they are using those measures in performance review meetings or performance appraisals, to “performance manage” the person.

This “performance managing” might include:

  • Giving them bonuses, promotions or other rewards for good performance.
  • Denying them those things as punishment for poor performance.
  • Sacking them or firing them.
  • Putting in place some conditions for their ongoing employment, such as future targets, training, mentoring and so on.

Employee performance management is considered an essential part of managing the workforce. I’m not about to dispute that. What I’m about to dispute is the role of performance measures in this process, and how it makes performance actually get worse.

There are problems in measuring people to manage their performance. And these problems stem from the beliefs and attitudes people have about being measured that reinforce a downward spiral in overall organisational performance.

It starts with monitoring…

Managers want people to perform better so they monitor people to assess their performance.

Monitoring leads to judgment…

When people know they are being monitored, they feel judged. No-one likes to feel judged. Do you like to feel judged?

Judgment leads to threat…

People will then take the judgement personally and that makes them feel threatened.

Threat leads to defensiveness…

When people feel threatened, they get defensive in an attempt to protect themselves in any way they know how.

The most common method to protect themselves from the threat of performance measures is to hide performance problems so the measures look good. Or they will manipulate the measures to make the results look good. Or they will set targets for measures they know they can achieve. These are all the consequences of the tyranny of metrics.

Defensiveness makes performance worse…

When the important performance problems are hidden, performance gets worse. Why wouldn’t it get worse if it’s being ignored or manipulated?

Worsening performance leads to more monitoring…

Managers will pick up that performance is worsening, probably by the upstream impacts on higher level performance measures. And so their instinct is that more monitoring is needed.

More monitoring means that people are feeling the scrutiny of more judgement. And the spiral continues to go down. And it drives the culture into darkness.

Are you nodding your head right now in recognition?

Measuring people’s performance is what many people define performance measurement to be. They don’t think performance measurement means anything else. They don’t think about measuring organisational or process performance.

That’s the feeling I have gotten from the hundreds of people who have emailed me asking for help with measurement, meaning they want to know how to make measuring people easier, more engaging and more meaningful.

Simple answer: You can’t meaningfully measure people to manage their performance. So stop measuring people. Instead, let people collaboratively measure process performance.


I know you’ll have some pretty strong opinions and ideas about this (it’s a hot topic). So what are they? Are my views too stubborn and ignorant? Can you provide the evidence that what I say here is wrong? Educate me!

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