Performance appraisal: Don’t foster unrealistic dreams

It is easy to hype people into thinking that an improvement in their performance will open the doors to career mecca wide open.
By Raymond Dreyfack October 1, 1998

It is easy to hype people into thinking that an improvement in their performance will open the doors to career mecca wide open. Many young employees in particular lose sight of the reality that in most offices and plants career growth is, if not painful, slow. Boosting hopes and dreams unrealistically tends to divert one’s focus from the dreary present to a perceived rosy future. Project Supervisor Jim Waite learned this lesson the hard way.

Waite conducted quarterly appraisal sessions with the 12 engineers in his group. Ed Bostwick, 28, was an ambitious up and coming engineer whose perceptions of how fast he could come up were a bit distorted to begin with. Waite amplified the distortion.

“Jim,” he said during the interview, “you could have quicker growth and a great future with this company if only…”

The “if only’” consisted of improvements Waite wanted him to make in his performance and attendance. Hyped by his boss’ “great future” prognosis, Bostwick, envisioning early promotion, worked harder with this prospect in mind. When weeks and months passed without promotion, the young engineer grew antsy. He finally sought and accepted a job elsewhere.

Bostwick’s resignation was a loss to the department. Waite’s boss, Plant Engineer Harold Scheer, wanted to know why he had quit.

Question : In Scheer’s place, what advice would you give Waite?

Scheer’s counsel: After hearing a rundown of the young engineer’s appraisal interview, Scheer said, “Extreme care must be taken not to build employee hopes unrealistically. People often focus unduly on the implications of such phrases as ‘great future’ and ‘chance to get ahead,’ and on promises that can’t be kept. This focus tends to make them dwell on a bright tomorrow while fostering dissatisfaction with today.

“Alfred North Whitehead wrote: ‘Life is an unbroken process; we inherit the past but act in the present…the present is the holy ground.’ In Bostwick’s case you may have changed his focus a bit unrealistically.”