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Don’t We Have to be Objective when We Evaluate Someone’s Performance?

Descriptive measures seem subjective. Don’t we have to be objective when we evaluate someone’s performance?

Of course we must be objective. But what do the words objective and subjective actually mean? The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language provides illuminating definitions:

ob-jec-tive (ob-j k’t v) adjective

1: Of or having to do with a material object.

2: Having actual existence or reality.

3 a: Uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices: an objective critic b: Based on observable phenomena; presented factually: an objective appraisal.

sub-jec-tive (sub-j k’t v) adjective Abbr. subj.

1 a: Proceeding from or taking place within a person’s mind such as to be unaffected by the external world b: Particular to a given person; personal: subjective experience.

2: Moodily introspective.

3: Existing only in the mind; illusory.

It is a common mistake to think that descriptions of the quality of someone’s performance are subjective unless there is some number attached. This is wrong.

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Objectivity lies in meeting the tests provided by the dictionary definition: If the appraiser is ‘‘uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices,’’ if he is ‘‘fair,’’ if she bases her assessment on ‘‘observable phenomena’’ like an employee’s performance and behavior which are easily observed, and presents the appraisal factually, then that performance appraisal and that appraiser are indeed objective.

But it’s easy to fall victim to the myth of quantifiability: the erroneous belief that in order for an evaluation to be objective, it must involve countable units.

Consider the Winter Olympics. The winner of the downhill ski race is determined by time. The measurement tool is a stopwatch. The fastest skier wins. In ice hockey, the winning team is again determined quantitatively:

The winner is the team that scores the most goals. But what about women’s figure skating? What do the judges count? The answer, of course, is that there is nothing that they can count. Based on years of experience, with a clear model of excellence, and acting with integrity, they describe the performance and then assign a number to indicate their assessment.

In the Summer Olympics, the same is true. How is the winner of the hundred-meter freestyle determined? By the clock—the one who swims the fastest wins. What about water polo? Again, it’s a quantitative measure: Whoever scores the most goals wins. But now consider platform diving. What do the judges count? Again, there is nothing that they can count. Instead, they describe the performance and assign numbers to represent their judgment about its quality.

Objectivity has nothing to do with countability. As long as appraisers meet the following three tests, they are in fact objective evaluators.

1. They have a clear model of excellence.

2. They are trained and experienced.

3. They act with integrity.

Remember: What people really want to know is the boss’s opinion of their work. They want ‘‘subjective’’ information, to misuse the term. They want the answers to the questions: Boss, how am I doing? Do I have a bright future here? Should I be concerned about how well I’m doing my job? Are you pleased with my work?

There are no countable measures to answer those questions. However, every appraiser who is trained and experienced, who has a clear model of excellence, and who acts with integrity can answer those questions without difficulty.