Evidence and Management of the 7 Deadly Sins in Performance Management: Because People will be People

Kicking off an exciting week of posts from the Public Service Research Group at UNSW Canberra, today’s post from Professor Deborah Blackman (@debbiebl2), Dr Fiona Buick (@fibuick) and Professor Michael O’Donnell explores the ‘seven deadly sins’ of performance management that emerged in their recent research.

Effective employee performance management is often portrayed as being integral to organizational performance despite numerous well-documented problems with it. When analyzing data from the ‘Strengthening the Performance Framework’ research project [1] we wondered whether applying principles from the ‘seven deadly sins’ [2] to performance management would explain why these problems are so enduring or help identify fundamental issues needing to be addressed before real improvements can be made. 

Hieronymus Bosch (or follower): The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things

Hieronymus Bosch (or follower): The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things

Greed- the desire to acquire more resources than one needs. A major issue is when performance management is linked with a yearly increment, as it leads to employees feeling ‘entitled’ to the pay point progression. Managers admitted they allocated ‘satisfactory’ ratings to avoid conflict and the problem of dealing with underperformance. Another problem is when ratings ‘hijack’ the process and encourage employees to focus on achieving targets without considering the potential harm caused to their colleagues and/or organization. 

Gluttony - taking too much of something, leading to over-indulgence and over-consumption, to the point of waste; a glutton wants everything now even if it may harm the future. It is evident in performance management when, in order to attain a good rating, employees focus on short-term objectives at the expense of longer-term goals. This is exacerbated because performance measurement is undertaken on an individual basis, leading to employees narrowly focusing on their own goals (potentially to the detriment of broader goals). 

Lust - originally a general term for desire; therefore, in terms of performance management, lust manifests as unreasonable aspirations to money, position or power. This is exemplified when employees expect recognition and/or promotion for average work performance. This can lead to dissatisfaction with performance management processes if an employee receives a lower than expected rating or fails to attain anticipated increased pay, opportunities, responsibilities, or promotions. 

Envy - wanting to have what someone else has (traits, status, abilities, or rewards). When applied to performance management, it manifests when an individual perceives others as having access to rewards and development opportunities, where they do not, leading to resentment of others. This can occur due to the stratification of performance into rating scales, which often leads to employees comparing their ratings to those received by others. Perceptions of unfairness grow if it is thought that, for example, others have received high ratings when their performance does not warrant it, there is a forced bell curve which limits numbers of high ratings, or that employees who are underperforming are not being managed. 

Sloth- when someone is too slow or lazy at doing something; when applied to performance management, it is when employees or managers are either not doing things they should do or are doing them in a way that fails to lead to good performance outcomes. It is when employees and managers do not undertake the performance management process effectively, leading to performance agreements not being established, generic agreements (i.e. when every team member has the same agreement), employees and managers writing agreements with little thought or consideration, and being in a hurry to merely comply. Sloth is also evident when managers avoid managing underperformance; they may do this due to perceptions that it is too hard or they lack capacity to manage others.

Wrath (rage) - implies vindictive anger. It is often seen to be inappropriate (unrighteous) feelings of hatred, revenge or even denial, as well as punitive desires outside of justice. Feelings of anger can manifest in different ways, including impatience, revenge, and self-destructive behaviour. Wrath can be evident in performance management when it is used as ‘a weapon’, with some systems appear set up specifically to target underperformers.It can also be used as a weapon when poor employee-manager relationships are evident, particularly if the manager uses performance management for retribution.

Sinful Pride- believing that one is essentially better than others, failing to acknowledge the accomplishments of others, or excessive admiration of the personal self. It can lead to being too self-satisfied and can restrict change or development. In performance management, pride can be problematic due to the stigma attached to gaining a lower than expected performance rating; often this occurs when employees receive an ‘average’ rating. Pride manifests when employees over-rate themselves and then challenge the process if their self-assessment is not supported. Exaggerated self-perception can also lead to a lack of recognition of an employee’s developmental needs.


Does this matter?

This analysis shows that all seven deadly sins potentially undermine the effectiveness of employee performance management processes. This matters because both managers and employees will, by nature, tend to default to some, or any, of these behaviors and it is unlikely that compliance focused processes will change these. Notably many of these behaviors are not considered as sins per se; many are attributed to ‘normal’ behavior, such as the desire for reduced conflict or expecting a high rating. In undertaking this analysis, we do not suggest that eradicating the seven deadly sins will lead to effective performance management, but we wonder if acknowledging these default human behaviors may change the way performance management systems are designed and implemented. We suggest that rather than continually redesigning performance management systems, resources would be better invested in management development and training on how to implement whatever system is in place more effectively to manage organisational, managerial and employee expectations and to minimize the impacts of the seven deadly sins.

[1] Data used for these reflections came initially from the Strengthening the Performance project and then work related to this undertaken since. For more details please see: Blackman, D., Buick, F., O’Donnell, M., O’Flynn, J. and West D. 2013. Strengthening the performance framework: towards a high performance APSAustralian Public Service Commission.

[2] The seven deadly sins is a classification of vices which has been used since early Christian times to educate and instruct Christians about humanity's tendency to sin. The seven deadly sins are not seen as discrete from other sins; instead they are said to be the "capital" or original sins because they engender other sins, or other vices.