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How to Implement Criterion-Referenced Evaluation

criterion-referenced evaluation

The leaves are changing, and the chill in the air can only mean one thing. It’s performance evaluation season! It may not surprise you to know that frustration about performance evaluations (be it norm-referenced or criterion-referenced evaluation) is almost universally shared by managers and team members.

A constant question we ask ourselves at Sarah Noll Wilson, Inc is, “Is this a rule or just a possibility?” In light of everything we have experienced the last year and a half—a pandemic, unprecedented mental health strain, and now the Great Resignation—we want to invite you to consider that the formal performance evaluation process is just a possibility this year.   

When we think about assessing human performance, there are two concepts we need to be very clear about: Norm-referenced and criterion-referenced evaluation. 

Norm-Referenced Evaluation

The norm-referenced evaluation compares the performance of one team member to other team members or a team member to their previous performance year over year. This method is tricky because there is no set standard for meeting expectations or being proficient in your job. After all, there is only the comparison to others as the determining factor of performance. You may have experienced a version of this in school when teachers graded on a curve—the best paper was an A regardless of whether it met the expectations at that level. Likewise, you could have met the expectations but ended with a much lower grade in that system as well because it’s all relative to the other papers.  

Do any of these norm-referenced scenarios sound familiar to you? 

  • Kajal routinely receives positive feedback from her manager and colleagues. She’s a valued member of the team and serves as a resource and mentor for others. Kajal navigated a challenging project this year and delivered it successfully. She’s frustrated because she earns the basic “meets expectations” on her review because she “still isn’t doing as much as Rebecca and therefore can’t get an exceeds.”  
  • Malik had an outstanding evaluation last year and has pushed himself to keep improving this year. He joined a cross-functional project team to work on a persistent challenge facing the organization and represented the company during several events with the local chamber. Malik receives a “proficient” instead of “outstanding” evaluation because his manager perceives that he isn’t “doing as much work as last year.” 
  • Kate has consistent performance issues. She was placed on a performance improvement plan six months ago in the hopes she would be meeting expectations at the time of her evaluation. Now that evaluation time is here, she still isn’t meeting expectations but has advanced from “needs improvement” to “progressing.” She’s performing better than she did before, but she still isn’t meeting the standard. Kate’s manager advocates for her to receive a bonus as a reward for improving even though she still isn’t “where she needs to be.”   

Norm-reference evaluations can serve a purpose, but they aren’t the right fit to foster learning and growth because the target is always moving. These evaluations can be very subjective because they are less reliant on evidence and heavily reliant on comparison. Additionally, comparing team members to one another can negatively impact trust and detract from collaboration.   

Criterion-Referenced Evaluation

By contrast, criterion-referenced evaluation compares a person’s performance to a well-articulated set of criteria. In the best systems, these descriptors of success are known by all.   

These systems are far more objective because the criteria are clear, and evidence is used as an anchor of the evaluation. Another benefit of this system is that anyone can achieve at the highest level because performance is relative to the standards and not to one another.   

The best criterion-referenced systems are highly detailed about each level of performance. Simple number ratings, Likert scales, or other similar methods come up short because they do not clearly outline what performance looks like at each level. Without detailed descriptions, people can easily disagree about what comprises a score of “3” or a rating of “outstanding.”  

Wondering what a criterion-referenced evaluation looks like in real life? Here is a sample from one of the critical descriptors of success in my role, Director of Learning and Development: 

Essential Task: Ongoing development, revision, and enrichment of content. 

  • Exceed Expectation: New content is developed within the scope of the work of SNW, Inc and into new areas in alignment with the vision and trajectory of the team. A high level of collegiality exists, and revision of existing content is collaborative and driven equally with SNW. The content is enriched using research, articles, and data, increasing the depth of thought and creating new connections.
  • Meets Expectation: New content is developed that aligns with the current scope of SNW, Inc’s work. Collaboration with SNW results in the revision of existing content based on new learning and data. Current content is enriched with ongoing research, articles, and data.
  • Does Not Meet Expectation: New content is not developed, or the developed content is outside the scope and vision of SNW, Inc. Minimal collaboration or contribution is made in revising existing content. The current content does not evolve and is not enriched with new research, articles, or data.

How to Implement Criterion-Referenced Evaluations

In keeping with our guiding principle that theory is great, but tools are better, here are a few ways you can leverage these ideas in your organization: 

  • At a system level, advocate for criterion-referenced systems that demystify what both acceptable and exemplary performance look like so it is clear to the manager and team member alike. How might a system like this benefit everyone in the organization?  
  • Encourage team members to assess themselves on criterion-referenced rubrics and provide examples or evidence of their level of proficiency. This type of assessment builds self-awareness and leads to a higher level of ownership and improvement. What might be possible if employees can self-assessment on a rubric like the one above?  
  • Human performance isn’t a zero-sum game. Push back on the idea that someone needs to be down so someone else can be up. Push back against the belief that human performance and potential fall in a bell curve—a classic fixed mindset at work. What might be possible if your team embraced a growth mindset where everyone can meet or exceed expectations?  

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, remember that external evaluations are challenging even in the easiest years. The unprecedented level of disruption and stress has impacted all of us both personally and professionally. To forgo summative evaluations entirely this year would be very appropriate and a sign of leadership’s responsiveness to team member needs in this incredibly stressful time. Evaluations are a possibility, not a rule.

Even if you can’t do away with formal evaluations entirely this year, what steps can you take to account for the collective physical and mental health challenges that have been pervasive over the last year? How will you ensure that team members are not penalized for being human in a pandemic? 

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Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.

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