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How Do We Explain That Getting the Middle Rating is Not a Bad Thing?

Most people do a good job—not outstanding, not unacceptable—and therefore get rated in the middle category. But they all hate getting rated there. They see it as being labeled as a ‘‘C’’ student. How do we explain that getting the middle rating is not a bad thing?

There are four reasons that people hate getting rated in the middle. Three of them are correctable; one is not.

The one that we can’t do anything about is the universal human tendency to inflate our perceived talents and abilities. One survey revealed that over 80 percent of American men believe that they are above average in sports; Lake Wobegon has become famous as the mythical town where all the children are above average. In the absence of persuasive data to the contrary, people always believe that they are in the ‘‘exceeds expectations’’ category.

Another reason that people feel uncomfortable getting a middle rating is the appraiser’s failure to communicate performance expectations at the beginning of the year and provide informal interim and ongoing assessments during the year. If my boss says nothing to me about my performance during the year, then he must be happy with it, the individual reasonably explains to himself. And if he’s happy, then I must be doing better than just okay. And if I’m better than just okay, then I must therefore be superior. There’s nothing wrong with the individual’s logic—the fault lies in the manager’s failure to set tough-minded performance expectations at the start of the year and to communicate all through the year that meeting those demanding standards is ‘‘fully meeting expectations.’’

The third reason people resist a middle rating is that they see it as equivalent to school grades: A, B, C, D, and F. To get a middle rating means that the individual is considered an organizational C student.

That’s not true, and the school grades metaphor is inaccurate. If anything, the appropriate ‘‘grade’’ analogy is to the grading system in graduate schools: A, A-, B , B, and C. But even this analogy is faulty, since there is not a close connection between the evaluation processes used in educational institutions and the process used for human performance in organizations.

A better metaphor for the middle rating is shooting par in golf. Par doesn’t mean perfect. Par also doesn’t mean average or mediocre or middle-of-the-road, run-of-the-mill. What par represents is the number of golf strokes considered necessary to complete a hole or course in expert play. A pro golfer can often do better, but par is what is expected of an expert. The middle rating on a performance appraisal also represents the performance and behavior that an expert is expected to produce.

The most important reason that people resist the middle rating is that the terminology for the middle of the scale too often connotes mediocrity. If the middle rating is merely ‘‘competent,’’ you can expect resistance. If the middle rating is only ‘‘meets expectations,’’ you’ll have a lot of disappointed performers. And if the middle rating is the worst possible choice—a numerical ‘‘three’’—you’ll get massive resentment and discontent. But if the middle rating connotes success, then it will be much easier to explain that being rated in the middle category is not the bad deal that it is often considered. For example, if the label for the middle performance category is ‘‘Good Solid Performer,’’ who could object? If the middle rating is ‘‘Fully Successful,’’ people can take pride in that designation.

Red Flag

The only organizations where the great majority of people are rated above the middle category are those where managers’ performance expectations are set so low that even the village idiot can exceed them.