The Strictness Error

There is a class I know of (elementary school) where the teacher gives out hardly any top grades (it’s a complex system–it’s not just a matter of As, Bs, etc., or even just 1, 2, 3). The thinking, it is said, is that no one is perfect, and there always needs to be room to improve.

I’m sure there is more to the rationale, but is this a good idea? No. This is called the strictness error and it is demotivating. Managers can hold to the same error when it comes to performance reviews. Hence, the problems of the strictness error for both contexts is well explained by these comments in the book Management Skills:

The strictness error is the flip side of leniency. You rate everyone very strictly. While it is acceptable to maintain high standards, performance appraisals should be an accurate reflection of performance. Appraisals that are too strict will de-motivate employees and frustrate them. They will begin to think that no matter what they do, it will never enable them to achieve the rewards that they value. [I would restate the last part of the sentence, because it sounds too extrinsically motivated, but you get the point.]

The strictness error, as mentioned, is the opposite of the leniency error. You don’t want to error on that side, either, whether in education or management. The lenience error

provides employees with high performance appraisal ratings for mediocre or marginal performance. This marginal performer is then ‘rewarded’ in organizational terms. This will increase the likelihood that his or her marginal performance will continue–because they have no incentive to improve.

Of course, the one other issue raised here for the arena of management is whether the traditional concept of a performance appraisal is a good idea at all. It is, and should, seem a bit odd that I am able to make a comparison between how we treat elementary students and how we treat adults on the job.

It is critical that people receive feedback on results and are held accountable for meeting the defined outcomes they are responsible to produce, and that this be done through a regular routine of meetings and conversations. But whether this should include or be wrapped in with a detailed performance appraisal that effectively ranks or grades people is an open question, in my view.