Performance Evals Are Bad – The Great Jackass Fallacy

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Several weeks ago we ran a series of posts on policy deployment because it was “that time of year.”  Now it is getting to be a “different” time of year, the time when we have to start thinking about performance evaluations.

Some evaluation systems are based on building skills and coaching processes.  This isn’t a bad foundation for an eval system.  On the other hand, the point of this blog is to address those performance evaluation / merit pay systems that are based on “the carrot and the stick.”  This post takes issue with the “jackass” assumption behind “punishment and reward” types of evals / merit increases.

One of the assumptions behind performance appraisals is that the evaluation will improve the employee’s performance.  According to Peter Scholtes in the The Leader’s Handbook, one of the axiomatic premises of conventional management is that “people are withholding their best effort and can be induced to do better only through incentives (carrots and sticks) imposed from outside.”  This is based largely on the work of B.F. Skinner, a psychologist who theorized that human behavior as a set of responses that can be conditioned.  According to Alfie Kohn in his book, Punished by Rewards, “B. F. Skinner could be described as a man who conducted most of his experiments on rodents and pigeons and wrote most of his books about people.

Psychologist Harry Levinson calls this the “great jackass fallacy.”  Dr. Levinson would ask participants in his executive seminars what they thought the dominant philosophy of motivation in American was.  They would quickly agree that is was the carrot and stick: punishment and reward.  He would then ask the participants to close their eyes and imagine a carrot and stick.  He would then ask them what the central figure in that image was.  It was usually a jackass.  He relates this in his book, The Great Jackass Fallacy:

When the first image that comes to mind when one thinks ‘carrot-and-stick’ is a jackass, obviously the unconscious assumption behind the reward-punishment model is that one is dealing with jackasses, that people are jackasses to be manipulated and controlled. Thus, unconsciously, the boss is the manipulator and controller, and the subordinate is the jackass.
The characteristics of a jackass are stubbornness, stupidity, willfulness, and unwillingness to go where someone is driving him. These, by interesting coincidence, are also the characteristics of the unmotivated employee. Thus it becomes vividly clear that the underlying assumption management makes about motivation leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy….
The consequences are increased inefficiency, lowered productivity, heightened absenteeism, and other modes of withdrawal from engagement…, or covert engagement in a combative struggle.
This isn’t to say that money is irrelevant.  Sometimes people can be induced to change organizations with money being one of the principal inducements.  Money might even keep you getting out of bed and going to work everyday.  What is far less likely is that you are going to be motivated to do a better job when you get there because of your boss’s last evaluation of your performance or because of your merit increase.
This doesn’t say that there can’t be systems that give bonus or increases to employees.  Some companies have profit sharing where all employees benefit when the company does well.  People aren’t singled out for either extra bonus nor less.  When the company does well everybody enjoys a little of the economic benefit.  Volkswagen is starting an interesting bonus system next year where managers will be rewarded for long term employee and customer satisfaction.  Deutsche Welle ran a story on it (here), and Bill Waddell blogged on it here at Evolving Excellence.  From the DW story:

Starting next year, VW will introduce a so-called “long term bonus” plan, in which managers will be rewarded according to customer and employee satisfaction, as well as their achievements in sales and the company’s rate of return. In addition, VW will no longer offer stock options.

In the coming days we’ll look at some of the other problems with traditional performance evaluation / merit increase  systems.  We’ll talk about how they may increase competition at the expense of collaboration among peers and we’ll talk about measuring performance.  Bryan will share some ideas about an evaluation system that is based on coaching and teaching process based on the assumption that the right processes will get the right results.
What do you think?  Are people best motivate by the carrot and stick (money)?  Do people withhold their best work until it is induced from them with an incentive like money?  Do you think your performance evaluations improves your performance?  If your boss treats you like a jackass by coaxing you with “carrot and stick” who’s really the jackass?  Comments are welcome.


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21 Responses

  1. Incentives have their place. The trick is to avoid the glib assumption that there is nothing else going on in people’s heads other than weighing incentives. It’s not being rewarded that people mind, it’s being treated as if they have no mind.

    • I agree that incentives probably do have a place. I think the problem is that when organization assume that the quality of people’s work is principally influenced by a reward structure that pits peers in competition with each other even though they rely on each other for collaboration and competition. Additionally, I don’t think most measurement systems of performance used in some of these systems are very good at accurately measuring people’s performance – but those things will be another post.

  2. Interesting Video in regards to this very topic:

    • Thanks Dan! Great video. I am going to do a follow up post featuring it after the new year. It appears that science is backing up some of Dr. W Edwards Deming’s beliefs about motivation. Pink does a great job as to delivery and content in delivering the message.

  3. What I have seen is Manager’s don’t like this either. They are pushed by HR to get these done be an arbitrary deadline. Most Manager’s don’t realize that this process should be a conversation not a headache. Also, some companies do these annually, which is way too long between feedback. Instead of a platform for discussion and growth, it is two people who feel that they are forced to do this and after the meeting, both are relieved that don’t have to do that again for another year!

    • I agree that many of the bosses that I have gone through this with really seemed as pained by the experience as I was. Some bosses seem to try to keep their analysis to a qualitative assessment of how well you did what they assigned you to do instead of a purely results oriented approach. That is a move towards coaching and makes it far less painful. I think you are right. If I choose to blame – I would blame Sr execs or HR not the midlevel managers who are tasked with executing these things. I once worked for a company that required my boss to rate me on a scale of 1 to 10 for integrity. What’s that!? Worse yet- I informally polled people and everybody defined integrity differently. That goes back to Deming’s belief questioning the measurement systems involved in performance appraisals and his point on measurement systems in general that nothing exists without an operational definition.

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  7. Great post. I love the Jackass Fallacy Idea. It amazes me again again to find that although there is so much evidence out there about how complex and diverse human beings are, people still revert to the same old conventional wisdoms that were developed over the years and are just plain wrong. There are so many examples for this phenomenon (here is one:
    I also think that a mechanical yearly evaluation could do more harm than good. Actually, it could be a good test. If a manager needs one, that means he is not doing is job (See more on this here:
    Thanks for this post, it gave more ideas for project on mistaken conventional wisdoms in management that I am working on!

  8. […] This post was Twitted by btozier […]

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  10. […] Read Posts Performance Evals Are Bad – The Great Jackass FallacyPerformance Appraisals – A Better Way?The Great Jackass Fallacy – Dan Pink and W. Edwards […]

  11. […] and sticks might work, but its underlining assumption is that people are jackasses (that is stubborn, stupid, willful, and unwilling to go where someone is driving him). Carrots and […]

  12. […] treating management as a race for productivity you get an unnatural phenomenon. When you start using carrots and sticks like people are jackasses you get an unnatural phenomenon. When you rely only on measurement of only the things you can […]

  13. […] the last couple months we have posted several times on annual performance appraisals (The Jackass Fallacy,  Dan Pink’s & W. Edward’s Deming’s take on motivation,  Bryan suggests a […]

  14. […] treating management as a race for productivity you get an unnatural phenomenon. When you start using carrots and sticks like people are jackasses you get an unnatural phenomenon. When you rely only on measurement of only the things you can […]

  15. […] Just because something works, does not make it right. Employees are not cogs. They are not jackasses. And they are not […]

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  17. […] thanks to reader Dan Mott who left a link to a TED video on a post from last week calledPerformance Evals Are Bad – The Great Jackass Fallacy criticizing the “carrots and sticks” approach to performance evaluations and merit increases.  […]

  18. I was just tipped off to Levinson’s book and have been reading it this past week. Amazing stuff for 1973 – talking about the shift to a service economy and the need for new styles of leadership… reinforced later by Deming, Pink, etc.

    The book is only $4 with shipping at Amazon:

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