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!

Speak Your Mind

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  1. Graeme Emmerson says:

    I am a devotee of the balanced scorecard. Ensuring you people were tracking correctly was a key element for us. Our “measures” or indicators came from an annual staff perception survey (based on the ABEF) which provided areas in the department where we needed to improve. Other indicators were the amount of “unplanned” leave, and here the focus was more specific (particular staff members), and achievement of training targets each year. Our next level of process measurement was then more assured of delivery if we kept our eye on the people “indicators”

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Graeme, some of what you are describing are measures of the HR processes, not measures of individual people. Where you did take those measures down to the individual person level, what kind of success or kick-back did you experience?

  2. Vanessa Craig says:

    In my entire career, in many different front line and corporate roles, I have hardly ever seen the measurement of individual people cause anything but angst for those being measured. Sometimes I was on the receiving end of the performance measurement system, and sometimes I was designing the system, or reviewing it. One thing I have learnt is that however carefully it is designed, you cannot avoid the problems that Stacey has listed – and I have seen them all.
    People performance management is extremely difficult. You can design and use a system for joint goal setting, and use it effectively for shared discussions between manager and employee for personal skill development and personal role effectiveness improvement – but the minute it is linked to reward or punishment – it creates the unintended consequences listed above.
    Passing judgement upon people is inherently damaging to their self esteem. That is compounded if the manager is uncomfortable handling the defensive reactions to negative feedback. That requires enormous levels of skill, even from people oriented managers.
    If you select and implement the wrong people measures, you can tip the whole organisation off track very quickly, because if people measures and organisational measures conflict, people will do what is rewarded, not what the organisation requires.
    Measuring the process, and doing it collaboratively with the people involved in the process, is the safest and most effective way to simultaneously improve both people and organisational performance.
    In many cases things like absenteeism are symptoms of the problems created by poorly managed processes, such as lack of the information required to complete work effectively, (especially where decisions have to be made), too fast a work pace making people feel overwhelmed (especially when staff are new), changes in technology staff have to use, without effective training in how to use it, new technology enforcing poorly designed processes that makes the job harder, not easier. Nothing engages staff more than them feeling empowered to be able to perform their job, effectively and efficiently. They dont come to work to be put in an impossible situation and be made to feel inadequate. They want to feel pride in contributing well.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Ah Vanessa, you express this so well! Thanks for deepening the discussion.

      • Alicen says:

        I agree with you Stacey, and Vanessa. I’ve just left a HR role in a small business, where I was actively trying to help the director find better ways to motivate people (hence finding Stacey’s website), but he continued to micro-manage, criticise, judge and deflate people. I’m hoping to find a new workplace where people are open to finding a better way of managing the business, and their people. I hope it exists!

  3. Larry says:

    You mentioned: not disputing “Employee performance management is considered an essential part of managing the workforce.”
    So, you advocate measuring this at the process level. Rewards can also be given at that level inferring that they would not be given based on individual performance (ok?)
    So that still leaves managers with the need to understand individual contribution to this process performance.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Larry, I don’t dispute that we need to manage employee performance. I dispute that we should measure it. In other words, *no I do not advocate measuring employee performance at any level*. I believe that measures are tools for people to use to help them perform, not assessments of how they perform.

      Managing employee performance, to me, is about helping people grow on a personal level as they help the organisation grow.

      The automatic assumption that rewards are needed as part of employee performance management is interesting. The best rewards are intrinsic to the act of performing your job well, as Vanessa explains in her comment. Financial rewards are found lacking in their ability to satisfy and motivate most people. Another can of worms opens up…

  4. Elliot Sturman says:

    What about the Olympics? Does measuring the performance of an Olympic athlete improve, or retard, their performance?

    Employee performance feedback helps employees:
    * Know what they are expected to accomplish
    * Know how they are doing
    * Refine their skills
    * Stay focused and motivated

    It also helps supervisors provide more effective:
    * Goals
    * Coaching
    * Reward and recognition
    * Corrective action
    * Performance reviews
    * Promotion and termination decisions

    The performance of employees and teams are already being informally reviewed all of the time. Since this is something that is both useful and impossible to get away from anyhow, we may as well develop and improve this existing system so that it is more effective, timely, accurate, and fair.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      When an athlete measures their performance, I think they are still measuring their processes (training, recovery, racing, nutrition, etc…). If they have a bad training session, their coach won’t judge them using the measures, they instead use the measures to diagnose what factors were at play, and if there is anything different they need to do.

      The whole point is we don’t want measures to drive fear and its consequences. We want measures to drive understanding, curiosity and discovery.

      • Charles Savoie says:

        I tend to agree with Elliot. Yes, the athlete is measuring their process (training, recovery, racing, nutirition) but also, dedication, effort, ability and utlimately victory or potential for victory. IF he cannot win and your ultimate goal is winning (rather than personal growth of athlete) then you must measure the athlete (and his potential for winning) in addition to his process (es).

        Similar in business, the measurements around processes often leads to Standard Operating Procedures that work consistently and produce the desired outcome(s) for the Corporation. If an employee is not measured, you could not identify that he needs additional training for example or that he lacks the focus, commitent or ability to accomplish this work, you would only know that the process is not working well (which is important)

  5. peter oeij says:

    Hello all,
    another question: how can you measure “defensiveness” in the way teams talk about their work / project? Are there indicators that are useful to analyse talk? Are there validated instruments anyone knows of?
    Kind regards, Peter

  6. Scott says:

    Hi Stacey, I am a big fan of you and your blog.

    We’ve both heard “what gets measured gets done”. That is not true. The accurate thing to say is “what gets reinforced gets done”. Measurement is just a signal for possible R+. For example, you are driving on a rural West Virgina highway with a speed limit of 60. Your speedometer says 85. So the measure is accurate but in this case has no impact on your behavior. No police around.

    If measures are used primarily to punish, it is not surprising that people avoid measurements. The real challenge in designing performance management (imo) is to make sure your measures speak to at least 85% of the outputs and requirements of the job. Otherwise you will have people focusing on the measurables and not the intangibles.

    We also have to be sure human performance measures pass the control test. It needs to be a ratio of performance over opportunity to perform. Insufficient opportunity to perform then draws us to look at process issues over human performance issues. I wish you were in the neighborhood, I imagine we could have an interesting chat.

  7. Jenny says:

    There is no way to “measure” human performance. It is basically the opinion that someone has on somebody else’s job performance. It is therefore evaluative and judgmental. Yes, we don’t like to be judged but there are situations when this judgment is necessary for legitimate organizational reasons (a college professor and his students; a leader and her team; an organization that has to appoint someone to a high-level position and so on). It does not mean you have to set up a formal performance appraisal process but is does mean that it is impossible to refrain from making judgments about people performance. So, the question is: are there any tools to help us make objective and fair judgments about someone performance?

  8. Renee Collins says:

    2 key takeaways and things for me:

    “measures are tools for people to use to help them perform, not assessments of how they perform.”

    “The whole point is we don’t want measures to drive fear and its consequences. We want measures to drive understanding, curiosity and discovery.”

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