Saturday, December 9, 2006

Surrounded by informers - 360 degree performance feedback

360 is the buzz word of the day. We heard so much about Ngong Ping 360 these days, from trapped passengers in the air, cracks in the structure, cable cars clashing being too close, suspended service owing to the wind. Problems surrounded the cable car service in 360 degree. But Ngong Ping 360 is actually about viewing the surrounding in 360 degree, from the airport to the Buddha. It is a bit amusing to note a research paper written by a colleague discussing officers being surrounded by informers in 360 degree, and being appraised in the process.

Performance appraisal is an inexact science because it is a human action. Although academics all try to build a scientific method, a person appraising another person is a very complex matter, far too complex to be scientifically analyzed. The simple reason is that all human weaknesses are reflected in the process, including bias, arrogance, fear, envy, interest, etc. Truth is not the dominating factor. Also, many academics think that performance appraisal is just a step in performance management, and the appraisal should just reflect the true performance. However, in the mind of the supervisors, the appraisal is an important management tool by itself. It is both a carrot and a stick, but not for its eventual usage for administrative decisions or for administrative purposes. The subtle presentation of the "truth" in many skillful ways could mean a large variety in rating or ranking between the lines. Narratives can be interpreted both ways. HR managers who worked in promotion exercises would know better, that how the board sieved through the appraisal forms searching for the words which suited the recommendation.

The existing performance appraisal system has the merit of being prepared by the immediate supervisor, who is supposed to have first hand information on the performance. The added countersigning officer, being the supervisor's supervisor, provides the checks and balances. This is the basic; this is the core. No one else is in a better position. However, there is a conspiracy theory that this two-level appraisal is not sufficiently fair. Thus we have the departmental secretary comment, and then the head of grade comment. The Public Service Commission also recommends that there should be an assessment board to ensure consistency in appraisal. In a department I worked, an assessment board chaired by the deputy director examined all appraisals. The board actually interviewed appraising officers on "unsatisfactory" appraisals (not unsatisfactory performance) and demanded revision. As a result, the deputy director dictated the performance appraisal of all members of the professional grade. Such fairness.

I suggested in another forum that a better approach is to go back to basic. We must trust the supervisors and countersigning officers lest the appraisals would drift further away from the truth. It is true that there could be errors and undue influence of human weaknesses. However, the solution is to provide training on appraisal and to nurture a culture of frankness. It is easier to confine the problem to the core and find a cure, instead of putting ever more additional layers of supervision.

The research paper presents the modern approach of 360 degree performance feedback by including the officer himself, his peers and subordinates as additional appraisers. The research is a respectable effort to find out the acceptability of grade members to the up-to-date method. It is clever to call it performance feedback instead of performance appraisal. It sounds less authoritative but the body is still the same. The Mega Trends of recent years are decentralization, communication, consultation, democratization. They all boil down to a trend of change from hierarchical management to matrix management. However, the basic assumption on performance appraisal is still the same, that the supervisors and the countersigning officers are not to be trusted, that we need additional information in order to get to the truth. Instead of seeking higher authorities, which is something un-trendy, why not seek more informers in 360 degree? There seems to be two arguments. First, other angles such as self, peers, and subordinates could provide information which the supervisor does not have. Second, multiple channels of information may give the illusion that the appraisal is fairer. I do not see from the literature review that there is proof on these two points. It is taken for granted that other parties could assess some competencies better than the supervisor, but this is only true in the case of an incompetent supervisor. Also, multiple appraisal would easily lead to more conflicting assessments. This is resolved by a more senior officer or an independent party. Sadly, both of them are less informed of the truth. At the end of the day, 360 appraisals may just be filed together. It is then up to the promotion board to dig out the "undesirable" comments to suit its recommendation.

One finding that surprises me is the level of trust on the Career Development Managers CDM. I always thought that the CDM system is the best among all grades, that officers are well looked after by dedicated HR professionals. When I worked as HR manager in departments, many professional grade officers came to me seeking help on personnel matters as well as problems with supervisors and subordinates. CDM, or HR manager, should be highly respected as a sensible person able to comment fairly on the character, aptitude and integrity of the appraisee. However, a majority of officers surveyed in the research considered that CDM should not be allowed to be one of the appraising officers in the 360 degree model. Come to think of it, CDM have always been writing on the appraisal form and putting down a final performance rating. We may need to re-think the modi operandi of the CDM system.