Provoking thought

No More External Assessment

You take your driver’s license practical exam. You’re almost done after half an hour of high-adrenaline driving. You park the car, right in-between the lines. You step out, so does the examiner. Then, you await your assessment. What is the verdict?

You’re taking your high school final exams. A full week of daily sessions. Years of struggle and preparation went into this, but it’s here. It’s done. You put down your pen, turn in your work and walk out. Then for a week you wait for the results to come in. The phone rings. Here it comes.

You decide to just go for it. This has been a long time coming. It shouldn’t come as a completely surprise. Still you’re not sure. Alright, let’s do this. You pull a small box out of your pocket, and get on one knee.

Even as I write down these memories my stomach turns. The tension. The anxiety. The relief. The disappointment. It’s a part of life, but is it something we should seek more of, or reduce as much as possible?

The common factor in all these examples is that we are being assessed by the outside world. We may have a gut feeling of where we are, but we very well may be surprised. And when we are, we are highly impacted. We feel terrible. I failed my exam, again. She said no, again. I did not get that promotion, again.

What if, rather than being assessed from the outside, we would be able to assess ourselves? Would that not only be far less anxiety inducing, but also help us doing a better job?

“What are you suggesting, Zef? Self-assessed marriage proposals?”

Heh, no. Although that does sound very romantic… 🤔

Let’s use a less romantic example that I’ve used in practice: self assessment for seniority promotions.

“I’m a mid-level engineer right now, am I ready to be promoted to the senior level?”

Let’s see how to implement such a thing.

Many companies have a competency matrix. On the vertical axis these list out a whole bunch of competencies or company values, or however your company encodes what they care most about. On the horizontal axis are the levels from junior to more senior. The individual cells define the specific expectations for each of the competencies for that level.

Whenever somebody is interested in a promotion, or a manager feels somebody is edging towards a promotion — they can do the following self assessment exercise:

Take the competency matrix and for each of the items for the next level up assess:

  1. Do I match this already?
  2. What are some concrete examples where I did, if any?
  3. Do I feel I do this consistently, occasionally, or do I still fall short?

Doing this exercise on your own should give you a pretty accurate answer to the “am I ready?” question. And when you conclude that you are not ready, it will give you a clear roadmap of how to get there.

All without anxiety, frustration or stress.

However, it is even more helpful to review the results with your manager. The goal is to align on interpretations: “you mention this as example of that, but what we really are looking for is this.”

In doing this, it’s important that the strategy of the manager is not to overrule somebody’s self assessment, but to give them enough context to self adjust.

Of course, ultimately, the manager, or whoever decides on a promotion will be accountable for the assessment. However, when this exercise is conducted properly, I rarely see big discrepancies between the manager’s assessment and employee’s self assessment.

Self assessment for promotions are just one example, the approach can be applied more widely.

In many companies, the performance review process includes a self assessment step. Let’s double down on it. Let’s no longer accept a two sentence summary that effectively says that somebody feels they “did a pretty good job this year.”

No more two-sentence self assessments!

Instead, ask people to write their own performance review, including a suggested rating and rationale behind it.

“But that’s the manager’s job, why would an employee have to do that?”

I hear you. It’s counter intuitive. However, would you not agree that a performance review centered around self assessment, enhanced with additional input from peers and manager is (1) easier to accept, and (2) much more beneficial for growth?

Doubling down on self reflection has many advantages:

  1. Help people become self critical: Self reflection will help people to self reflect on their performance more rationally and accurately than a casual “I think I’m pretty awesome, I should get a raise” or if they’re less confident “I’m an impostor. I don’t know why nobody fired me yet.”
  2. Assessment quality: Self reflection gives a lot more context to the manager. Let’s face it: managers, peers, or whoever participates in feedback have a highly limited and biased view of a person’s performance. They don’t have visibility into all the work somebody did, and are likely to draw simplistic conclusions based on observed behavior. A good self assessment can reveal what’s been happening “behind the scenes” and give a much better picture of reality.
  3. Highlight differences in expectations of the role and level between manager and employee. “In your mind doing X is exceptional, but actually that’s completely expected at your level, so let’s talk about that.” “You feel like an impostor, but at the same time you achieved A, B and C, which I’ve never seen anybody at your level pull off!”
  4. Cycle-time improvements. After repeating this exercise a few times, if it turns out people can pretty accurately assess themselves, why limit doing so to a performance cycle and not self assess all the time? Let’s shorten that (self) feedback loop!

I can tell, you’re getting excited about the prospect of self evaluating all the things. I can tell through self reflection, because I feel the exact same!

“Will this work everywhere? Can we live in a world that is free of external judgment?”

Honestly, I don’t know. Probably not in a practical way. And since it’s a high effort thing to attempt, it may not always be worth it.

It’s conceivable we can somehow teach people to self assess their driving to accurately predict passing a driving test. However, is it worth it? Ideally, you only take such a test once. I did anyway. Not to brag or anything.

School exams. Similar story. Wedding proposals. Same. Hypothetically.

However, whenever there’s recurring assessment at play, figuring out how to help people self assess, is something to consider. What are the tools we can give people to rely less on outside judgment, and more on self reflection?

Every time we make progress, the world becomes a little less stressful.

A little more predictable.

A little more chill.