It is employee evaluation time in my office; another chance to learn from flaws in the process. This year, I am interested in skills development. In our process skills are an afterthought, but I think they should come first, as in sports. I will explore that idea here. Spoiler: skills come in bundles, which balance the tradeoffs in skill development and the synergies in skill use.
But first, allow me to complain about our employee evaluation process.
The process is built around annual goals. The form (there is always a form) gives space for around 5–10 goals. The supervisor and employee can put nearly anything as a “goal”. A goal can be small or large; ambitious or timid. It could be a mere input (i.e., effort by the employee), an output (e.g., a written product), or an outcome (e.g., an improvement in customers’ lives).
The form has training section at the end. What goes there? Ideas for classes, readings, or other ways for the employee to learn things. (This year, I’m going to learn something about Python.) The form does not suggest a connection between goals and training. In my experience, most people gloss over training, often citing — truthfully — the lack of money for training expenses.
The form gives no help in choosing skills, a real missed opportunity. For instance, the form could — but does not — include a list of the employee’s ongoing duties and derive relevant skills from that list. Similarly, the form could — but does not — include a list of the employee’s current skills and note options for developing them.
The current skills idea is a good place to bring sports in to the discussion. It is common to talk about players in the form of a scouting report, which covers skills the player has; skills she ought to have but doesn’t; and habits or tendencies. Something like this:
She’s a stay-at-home defenseman with good vision and puck sense, a quick but not powerful shot, and solid skating skills. She needs to work on her physical presence in the neutral zone and on distributing the puck. She tends to allow more of a gap than needed.
This way of talking about players seems so common that it goes unremarked upon by athletes. My kids, for instance, talk this way naturally about all of their teammates, their opponents, and players they just watch. It is noteworthy that scouting talk is always evaluative, but need not be disparaging. It seems most valuable when it is accurate and supportive of improvement.
A scouting report mostly describes the player, but it also describes the situation around the player, namely how her skills fit into the rest of the team. “She is a defenseman” describes both her skill set and her role.
Here we get to the idea of tradeoffs in skill development. To be a defenseman requires a different set of skills than to be a forward or a goaltender. True, they all skate, they all handle the puck, they all see the flow of the game. But defensemen have to be able turn, skate backwards, and maintain a proper gap, things that are not essential for forwards.
At a beginner level, the skating skills of forwards and defensemen may be indistinguishable. But at an elite level, they are very distinguishable. A forward who is out of position and having to act as a defensemen, may be just weak enough in defensive skating skills as to allow a goal.
As players in any sport develop, they work on the skills most relevant to their role. Skating backwards is a skill. Defenseman is a role. Taking face offs is a skill. Centerman is a role.
Although any hockey player can skate, when we assign players to roles we are choosy. We want the best backwards-skaters on defense. And once they are in that role, we are choosy about what skills they continue to develop. We want defenseman to be competent at face offs, but not at the expense of their defensive skating ability.
Put another way, if a defenseman has an extra hour for practice, most of that should go toward skills appropriate to her role; not to, say, goaltending. Meanwhile, the goaltenders are using their extra hour for rebound control, glove work, or stickhandling behind the net.
We might think of a role as a bundle of skills that together yield high value. To fit well in a role together, skills either need to be compatible enough that they can be developed in tandem with little conflict, or they need to yield high value when paired. Of course, some skills are general purpose, like hand-eye coordination in sports.
In my experience, governmental performance evaluations neglect this idea. They do not think consciously about which skills to bundle in roles. Nor do they consider the value yielded by different bundles. They treat skills as an unlimited grab bag: choose as many as you like; work on what ever skills interest you. Indeed if an employee doesn’t work on a lot of skills, she is seen as a slacker or a failure.
But ignoring tradeoffs and synergies among skills doesn’t make them disappear. No, I can’t learn just any skills that interest me. Or more accurately, if I do that, I’ll be a poor contributor to the team.1 What people need from a performance evaluation is a thoughtful characterization of their role, of the skills that comprise that role, and a plan for improving those skills.
In short, we need scouting reports on our own bundle of skills.
I’m not saying that people should never work on skills outside their role. Rather, doing so should be a conscious choice with some value and an understanding of what’s being given up. A mid-career player with some aptitude for teaching may want to shift some of her practice time to teaching younger players, as an investment in her future teaching career, for instance. ↩