Most Performance Appraisals like Being Poked in the Eye with a Stick

In 1998, Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, was elected President of the American Psychological Association by a landslide. This set him casting about for a central theme for his time in this key leadership role. A few weeks later — still puzzling over a theme — he was weeding in his garden. His five-year-old daughter, Nikki, was throwing weeds in the air and singing. This distraction caused Seligman to yell at her to stop. A few minutes later she came and said, “Daddy, I want to talk to you.”

“Yes, Nikki?”

“Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday? From when I was three until I was five, I was a whiner. I whined every day. On my fifth birthday, I decided I wasn’t going to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I have ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.”

From the mouths of babes!

Seligman describes this encounter in his landmark book, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. His encounter with Nikki is described in an early chapter entitled “How Psychology Lost its Way and I Found Mine.” Seligman writes of his conversation with Nikki, “This was an epiphany for me … I’d spent fifty years enduring mostly wet weather in my soul and the last ten years as a walking nimbus cloud in a household radiant with sunshine … in that moment I resolved to change … raising children, I know now … was far more than just fixing what was wrong with them. It was about identifying and amplifying their strengths and virtues, and helping them find the niche where they can live those positive traits to the fullest.”

As discussed in last week’s webcast, 11 Keys to Building Extraordinary Leaders and Coaches (now archived and available for viewing), that’s exactly the radical shift we desperately need in our performance management practices. Most performance appraisals spend a few minutes dutifully discussing the individual’s strengths and accomplishment and then invest the majority of time developing an “improvement plan.”

These “improvements” are believed to come from addressing weaker areas. This is painful and produces little change. It’s why most people find giving and receiving performance appraisals about as much fun — and productive — as poking sticks in each other’s eyes.

Click on Coming Events for details on our complimentary November briefing and December strengths-based leadership and coaching skills workshops.


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