It is sad that humans have such poor faith in their own species ability to exercise Judgment. For it is our ability to reason and judge that makes us humans and not animals. Yet we chose to ignore and reject the 10,000 years of human progress solely achieved on the platform of subjectivity viz. human judgment and we are eulogizing and chasing after the Orwellian objectivity. The tyranny of objectivity is that there is only one logic or reason, the one which is authorized as rational by the interpreters of numbers, rules, laws of state or codified knowledge of the day, religious texts or other oligarical institutions or an illusory rational person. The notion of irrefutable truth is the very core of totalitarianism.
We have over the last fifteen years, in this country chased a mirage called absolute objectivity when it comes to assessing or rating human performance. Influenced by the practices and the endorsements from US and Europe we set upon changing our human performance assessment systems from descriptive and trait based systems to what we believed were objective measures based systems. Little did we realize that, fifteen years hence, the very proponents of these practices will bite the dust in their own countries, unable to secure their economies and institutions, with performance assessment systems both organizational and individual, which are reliable indicators of quality of performance. It is not my case to state that descriptive and trait based systems are superior to goals and measures based systems. However my case is that no system, where a human is the instrument of assessing/judging performance can ever be objective.
We very often blindly adopt endorsements and recommendations of academics and consulting firms without ever applying our own experience and judgment to it. The search for an absolutely objective human assessment system is one such eternal search for the Shangri-La. Embedded in the words subjectivity and objectivity is the indication to the true meaning of what is possible. Where a flesh and blood subject is the instrument judging performance of any kind human or otherwise, it can be nothing but subjective. True objectivity is possible only when the instrument of measurement is inanimate viz. lifeless and emotionless. This is where the confusion between assessment/rating and measurement arises. A thermometer measures and a human assesses. If a human tries to use her hand to figure out whether somebody has fever or not it is possible to assess that. It is also possible to assess whether it is a high grade or a low grade fever. The moment we start believing that the human hand is gifted with the same characteristic of a thermometer and hence by training or otherwise a human hand can measure in degrees Fahrenheit or Celsius the fever, we have already moved to a delusory state. Years of mindless propaganda and conditioning by the HR Gurus and the all knowing consultants have firmly instilled this delusion in the minds of both the assesses and the assessors and thereby killing the credibility of assessment systems of human performance in organizations.
I have also noted with amusement, the neo converts to this thought viz. those who until yesterday did not practice a decent metrics based rating system, suddenly become the zealous proponent and a guardian of the same, without even having experienced personally the various challenges involved in the same. We should come to terms that assessing human performance is more like making strategic judgment about the direction in which one would want to take a business. All the data and analysis which is required to be done prior to making the call is inevitable. But it is naïve to believe that visionary CEOs reach decisions where data and analysis lead them to. In other words data and analysis takes one closer to the choices. Nevertheless the choice would have to be a human judgment. Thus data and analysis help the judge to narrow substantially the zone of subjectivity. A system which runs purely on human judgment will be substantially inconsistent and the range of error will be large. The moment we support this human system with data, information and analysis, we help the human who is called upon to make the judgment to reduce the choices to one or two performance levels. Hence in what we call as an objective system there still can be errors to the extent of one level of performance or the other. In a process capability terms what we endeavor to do in a system where data, information and analysis is used to support human judgment, is to reduce the standard deviation of the distribution.
Over the years I have also observed with considerable amusement the belief among even senior managers that numbers mean objectivity. Arising out of this is the misconception that having metrics leads to objectivity. Nothing can be far from true, since all of us know that the choice of metrics and the integrity in compiling & reporting it is one of the serious weaknesses in the commercial world. All that one has to do is to sit through some of our business reviews to understand the subterfuge and the use of metrics to explain non- achievement, instead of using it for pin pointing what went wrong and who is accountable. The height of this fallacy was evident in the UN discussion in 2001 on whether to attack Iraq or not on the WMD debate. The much revered and celebrated Ex chief of US armed forces and the then incumbent Secretary of State used satellite generated photographs ( normally considered as water tight evidence of objectivity – even better than numbers and metrics) to get the UN vote for the famous war on terror. In the words of the McNamara (one of the best and the brightest of his era), the legendary Secretary of state to JFK during the Vietnam war, the objectivity delusion was at its height, when after a field visit to Vietnam he selected and fitted the data & information into the frame which supported the continuation of the war and was blind to the ones which screamed at him that US was indeed losing the war.
Unfortunately today organizations have reached a stage where the KRAs and the Goal sheets have become a coercive and restrictive contract between the boss and the team member. The supervisors have sadly lost the ability to get their teams to work on anything which is not specified in the KRA / Goal sheet, leading to a situation where metric is turning out to be a performance constraining and restricting tool. It has reached a comical situation that employees believe that it is better not serve a customer than do anything which is not specified in the KRA/Goal sheet as a metric. The fear of trying out something and spoiling the performance against the agreed metrics is paralyzing many an organization. Metric mania is freezing people with the fear of failure In other cases it is forcing people to adopt unethical or irrational risk taking to meet the numbers. This obsession has reduced many an otherwise competent leader to nothing more than a contract enforcer. My case is not that metrics are bad or KRAs have to be abandoned. On the other hand I am arguing the case for right and limited reliance on metrics and restoring back to managers and the leaders the right to use intuition and judgment in defining results and achievements. This will liberate enterprise and entrepreneurship back to commerce, which has become a slave of mindless and unimaginative Junior management avocation of managing by metrics.
There is another misconception that more the metrics and finer the weight age we give for various goals we make a system more objective. For a moment we should imagine ourselves to be a driver of a car. Now assume that instead of the four dials on the instrument panel we have let us say twelve and say instead of the four main controls namely accelerator, brake, gear and the steering we have twelve, I want my readers to come to the conclusion whether the driver can drive the car at all. Hence my case is that the critical performance factors either human or systemic, are the ones which need metrics. I happened to see the Saturn Five Rocket namely Apollo 11 which took astronauts to the moon and brought them back safely. I was pleasantly surprised to see that on the rocket control panel, there were just five instrument dials giving information to the astronauts. I had the opportunity to interact with an astronaut at the Kennedy Space Centre. I posed him a query, on what happens to all the other information which is required for a Space Odyssey. His reply was that it is the job of the mission control at the Houston and Cape Canaveral to collect and monitor the same. Then he took me to the mission control room at Kennedy Space Centre and pointed out that no system controller had more than four to five data to track and act. He further stated that the boss of the Space Odyssey namely the mission controller at all points of time required only mission critical information, so that he can relay back to the astronauts mission critical instructions. The moral of the experience is that no human being however capable she is will be able to comprehend process and use more than four or five critical inputs. Hence to load KRAs and performance goal sheets with metrics galore will lead to confusion and loss of focus in performance delivery. Metrics mania is a killer of performance, while apparently giving the boss an illusion of being in control.
Yet another delusion on objectivity is that the more refined a rating scale is viz. the performance rating levels, the rater can be more objective. All I want my readers to try out is to go to an electronics shop and try to evaluate a television you want to buy, amongst let us say ten brands on a rating scale of say ten and try the same with a rating scale of four or five. Here we have to understand we are rating a lifeless product hence objectivity is granted on one side. Now imagine the difficulty, when the assessor and assessee are both subjects viz. humans. It is fairly well established in rating human performance the more the choice on the rating scale the poorer the reliability and validity of ratings. In a multi-level rating scale, the raters make 60% of the rating levels on the scale redundant by not choosing the same. 80-90% of the rated population is fitted into 40% of the rating levels made available to them, thereby reducing lets say a 10 point rating scale to a 4 point rating scale.
In summary the human race has to come to terms that any assessment or rating process in which they are assessors or the assessed, will be subjective. However, a prudent use of metrics, data, analysis and rating definitions will support the assessor to reduce the range of choice and thereby the zone of subjectivity to one or two probable choices. This process substantially enhances the objectivity, but will still leave the assessment as a judgment and not a measurement. In our obsession with objectivity, we should not indignify the humans in this process viz. the assessor and the assessee by reducing them to lifeless and emotionless objects of objectivity.