I have copies of every evaluation I ever had as an officer and none as an academic. I took them seriously. I set goals and worked hard, too hard, to excel. It wasn’t enough just to do my job, or be above average I wanted to walk on water. Then one day I realized I can’t work harder and I have never been told anything I didn’t already know either good or bad.
My first duty station as a nurse was at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC. The first day my supervisor ask me for my ID, slapped it on her desk face down with her hand over it and ask me for my ID number. Fortunately, the one thing I don’t forget is numbers. It is stored in the part of my brain that has my first home phone number, my credit card number, and all sorts of other numbers I no longer need. We were immediately on the same page.
I worked 30 days before asking for a day off. As a person who has now supervised for 25 years, I don’t know how that is allowed to happen, but when the Chief Nurse found out she immediately sent me home. When I returned I went back to showing up early, staying late, and never taking leave. By the time I had reached 3 years of active duty I had maxed out the amount of leave I could carry over and started losing leave every year.
I carried the same drive into my off duty time volunteering at shelters, working on special projects, and being involved in my professional organizations. My evaluations reflected my efforts and so did the three below the zone/exceptional capability promotions to LT, CDR, and CAPT. Then one day I met a man that didn’t give me an evaluation that said I walked on water. It was an above average evaluation, but not perfect. When I quested it he replied, “I’ve evaluated people that won Nobel Prizes and they didn’t get perfect evaluations. When you get one let’s talk.” He was smiling and so did I. I realized that I was now competing in a different league. I was fine with it but realized that a Chief of Staff will never get a Nobel Prize and so the evaluation really didn’t matter. My motivation needed to be intrinsic. I had to stop competing.
I’ve never had a bad or even average evaluations so why do I hate them? I think they are anxiety producing. I would have worked hard with or without evaluations. I worked hard because I cared for my patients and loved my country. I volunteered because I wanted my community to be for others what it was for me. I didn’t need a piece of paper to tell me what was a good or bad performance. I knew when I succeeded and when I screwed up. Yet for about a month a year, I had to spend time documenting what I had done all year. It took time away from my patients and job. It also made me obsess about what else I could have done. It felt like shameless self-promotion and the harshest examination of conscience every. It didn’t make me a better nurse. It just made me obsess. The only thing worse was evaluating others.
I’ve evaluated some amazing people and few that fell short of expectations and a few others that were not good people. I had one person threaten violence with a knife for waking him up when the person should have been caring for patients, another that was ordering supplies and then selling them, and another that didn’t know the liver from the spleen. I’ve also had people that changed national policy and made the world better for all of us.
When I do evaluations I’m still a good officer. I will follow orders, but I no longer pretend that I agree with the process or think it makes the organization or the employee better. I think they are harmful to moral. That is not to say I don’t think employees need feedback. We all do. If someone needs feedback I will give it to them at the time it will be helpful, not a year later. I think praise should be offered freely and correction only when it is something the person doesn’t recognize. If a nurse made a medication error and reported it I don’t need to call that person in and lecture them on the error. I need to make the necessary reports, but in most cases, the person is already chastising themselves. When we made a huge mistake on a grant award the Secretary didn’t call us all in or write it on an evaluation. We were all horrified by the error and he knew it and worked with us to fix it.
I could tell you horror stories of good, excellent, and exceptional evaluation that people grieved because the comments weren’t glowing enough or there was one area for improvement. As much as I have tried to make them useful most people come into my office looking nervous and I know that I am about to give them something that may make them feel valued, but may also make them question their worth.
Is there evidence that evaluations improve outcomes? The growing body of literature is that they do not. According to Ryan Williams, “There is compelling new research that shows performance reviews actually don’t improve performance, and may actually cause a decline in performance.” Knowing that, why do we continue to do them? When I ask I almost always get the same answer about the need to document poor performance. Rephrased that says we do harm to the majority who do a job so we can fire the few that do bad jobs. That just seems wrong.
I’m willing to admit the staff member that threatened violence with a knife when I was still in my twenties may have forever skewed how I feel about evaluations and negative feedback. It could also be twenty-five years of supervising brought me to the realization that most people don’t need a supervisor. They need to be trusted to do a good job. It is simply not true that the only one that cares about success, outcomes, and the mission is the person in the administration. Maybe we would be better off to have quarterly meetings to discuss as a team what we are doing well, what we could do better, and what we should stop doing because it is ineffective. It seems more collaborative than one person evaluating many others.