The Case For Subjective Employee Evaluations

Perhaps we should talk more about accomplishments than performance.

The Case For Subjective Employee Evaluations
[Photo: Oskari Porkka via Shutterstock]

Evaluation is a big and controversial word.


Articles appear regularly about performance evaluations and the large sums of money spent on them. The evaluations of these evaluation processes are mostly negative. Workers and managers dread them and report very little practical value: Evaluations generally don’t result in improved performance, productivity, and morale, even when sincere efforts are made to make this a meaningful process.

What it seems we’d like to see is a way to measure performance that gives objective data so we can be fair and have a defined path to remedying any deficits. We want a rubric to make it easy and clear.

But perhaps we should talk more about accomplishments than performance. Consider these questions:

  • What specifically have you accomplished?
  • What have you learned?
  • What didn’t you accomplish related to your objectives?
  • What do you wish you had done differently? Why?
  • What skills do you need to develop/improve?
  • How will this affect your next project?
  • How can I better help you?

These are questions best asked as a debriefing, a process that should be integrated into how an organization monitors progress and growth, both for the individual and the organization. It’s a nitty-gritty process that is about the people and what they are actually doing, how they are doing it, and what they are truly accomplishing. It may be best done in an ongoing way, not just at the end of a project or every six months to a year.

This makes it part of the job. And yes, it is very personal: It’s not about proving yourself but improving yourself and accomplishing the task with your best work. The supervisory relationship is critical to its success.

Creating A Debriefing Process

Accomplishing tasks in the workplace is done in a context with leaders whose job it is to oversee the process and ensure good outcomes. Countless managers are good at debriefing and guiding others toward success. Many more are not. This is not an indictment of those who aren’t as skilled, it is more a call to action.


Skilled managers need to take the lead and mentor those who are not as skilled. This means working together to figure out a process that works. In short, the manager and employee together analyze what the employee needs to successfully accomplish the task. This is about process, skills analysis, and collaboration. Managers need to know how to do this and do it well with a variety of people.

In the U.S. military, debriefing after missions is standard procedure. It is integrated into the culture with time and resources devoted to the task. It is collaborative, with everyone involved offering their critique and ideas. The most junior people speak first. The spirit of this exercise is to improve the process, find out what worked, what didn’t and why, and then remedy any problems.

Creating Better Critiques

In most businesses, critique happens quickly, if at all, and lacks depth. It’s an event when it should be a process that is supported at every level of the organization. Most importantly it should be something that everyone looks forward to because it’s real, honest, specific, and results in improvements. Everyone learns something. When it’s an open, appreciative forum, you know it’s working.

This way of operating should apply within any work group or between manager and employee. But the key to this working well is that the manager and employee have a solid working relationship. We pay a lot of attention to the customer/client relationship but not as much to the internal working relationships. This is unfortunate: The number one reason people give for leaving their job is the quality of the relationship they have with their manager.

Managers need good relationship skills, so they have the types of conversations they need to have with their employees. I’m emphasizing conversations: Formal evaluations are not subjective enough. Conversations are subjective and need to be when we look at real people doing real tasks and understand what worked, what didn’t, and why.

This takes more than a workshop on conflict resolution or giving positive and developmental feedback. It requires higher-level training in identifying individual differences and how they play out in the work environment, process analysis skills, teaching methods, and more.


Likely you’re saying: Where do we find the time? Done efficiently and effectively, it doesn’t take much time. Subjective debriefing happens in an integrated and natural way. It’s part of the company culture—a culture where ongoing learning is central. Skilled managers know their supervisees well, have established trust, and have developed a collaborative working relationship, where debriefing is something you look forward to.

And it should be happening every day in an ordinary way around the real work that we do, not once or twice a year in a formal, so-called objective meeting. Such a process benefits individuals and the organization. The best leaders understand this and live by it, in a humanistic environment that believes in both human potential and high accomplishment standards. When this process is working well, perhaps there is no need for the objective performance evaluation.

Robert V. Keteyian is a leadership and communication coach, and is the author of Do You Know What I Mean?—Discovering Your Personal Communication Style. To learn more about Bob and his communication styles framework, visit his website: