Lessons from the Olympics on Assessing Performance






Like many of you, I am a huge fan of the Olympics.  I love seeing the culmination of years’ worth of hard work, emotions and sacrifice.  The key to all of this, of course, is that the competition is fair and unbiased.  This year, the London Olympics are supposed to be the most drug-free ever, given the extensive drug screening regime.  I was, however, saddened to see this Wall Street Journal report on the national bias that exists within Olympic judging of sports such as gymnastics, diving, boxing and dressage.   

The thrust of the article is this:  it is difficult to design a single judging system that prevents all forms of bad judging, be it corruption, intentional bias or unconscious bias.  Some sports, such as gymnastics, throw out the highest and lowest scores (the outliers) and average the remaining ones.  However, if there is collusion among a number of judges, then throwing out the outliers does little good.  Yet, the bigger problems, according to the article, are conscious and unconscious national bias, where a judge rates athletes from their own countries slightly higher than others.  The proposed solution?  Increasing the number of judges so the results reflect a broader base of opinions.

All of this sounds eerily similar to our research on performance appraisal, where we have talked about the importance of increasing the number of raters.  Unfortunately, just over half of organizations allow self-appraisals – and only about 1/3 of organizations allow second-level managers to contribute to performance appraisals (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1:  Frequency of Appraisals and Raters

Source:  Bersin & Associates, 2011, High-Impact Performance Management research, n=193.

Even more unfortunate, though, is the infrequency of appraisals.  With only 35% of organizations using a semi-annual appraisal – and only 9% using a quarterly appraisal – it is no wonder that so many employees and managers think the annual performance appraisal doesn’t reflect employees’ performance.  There is simply too long between the performance and the assessment.  Can you imagine a judge giving an Olympics gymnastics score in July 2013?  Of course not – it is silly.  But that is exactly what we’re asking our managers to do today.

So what is the solution?  One option is the use of a lightweight quarterly appraisal process.  Typically these appraisals have no detailed forms, no extensive calibration sessions.  Instead, they are simply conversations between managers and employees about how the employee is performing and what should be done differently in the future.  The conversations are often documented with an email that includes bullet points about the discussion.  These conversations can also take place at the same time as quarterly goal discussions, a practice that our research shows correlates with better business performance.  

Another approach could be a focus on improving the coaching skills of employees.  In our performance management research, we found that the greatest barrier to performance management is that managers lack the skills to coach their employees.  Giving all employees the confidence, skills and knowledge to coach each other can improve the level of feedback throughout the organization.  This helps improve both the number of sources from which employees receive feedback and the frequency with which they get it.  (Bersin members can access our research on employee coaching here.)

Reducing bias is just as important in the workplace as it is in the Olympics.  Some of the first few steps to doing this is increasing the number of raters and enhancing the frequency of appraisal.  These activities can begin to put your organization on a path to more feedback and coaching – ultimately helping your employees perform at their best – just like the Olympians we get to watch on TV. 


Stacia Garr

Vice President, Talent & Workforce Research Leader / Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Stacia leads talent management research for Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP. A frequent speaker at conferences and on webcasts, Stacia is widely published on topics including talent strategy, integrated talent management, performance and career management, employee engagement and recognition, workforce planning, and diversity and inclusion. Her work has been featured in The Economist, the New York Times, as well as in trade publications including Talent Management and CLO magazines. Stacia has an MBA from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, and bachelor’s degrees in history and political science from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College.

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