Measuring Performance: Necessary but Insufficient

“What gets measured,  gets done.” If this saying is true, then why are so many people overweight?

I have been recording my weight daily for over 35 years and as I am writing this, I am 4.5 pounds over my goal.  Although that might not seem like much, the last time I was at my goal weight was 1999!  During the last 35 years, I have been as much as 16 pounds overweight.  If what gets measured, gets done, then why have I not been able to be at my goal for 18 years.  The reason is that measurement doesn’t change behavior. Consequences do.

Measurement is necessary for efficient change but in no way is it sufficient.

As an undergraduate in psychology, I assisted my professor in “running subjects” for a study of the effects of feedback on learning.  While I don’t remember the published data, I do remember the results.  Subjects were asked to turn a knob 180 degrees without looking at the knob or their hand.  In the first part of the session, after each turn, I recorded the number of degrees the subject turned the knob, and without telling the subject the result, asked him to turn it again.  During this period no one improved.  During the next phase, after each turn of the knob, the number of degrees the subject turned the knob was announced.  All subjects improved.  To those readers who don’t understand the science of behavior, it may appear that they were measured and they improved.  However, that is not the case.

When people ask me about how to measure some kind of work performance, the first question I ask is, “Why do you want to measure that?”  If the answer is anything other than to help the performer to get more positive reinforcement, I tell them it won’t work.   In the study above, after turning the knob several times without any knowledge of how they were doing, most subjects would ask, “How am I doing?”  Of course I couldn’t tell them.  As it turned out, knowledge of the results was a positive reinforcer to all the subjects I tested.  Measurement facilitated reinforcement.

Measurement systems, properly constructed, allow for the discrimination of small changes in performance. Small improvements are the occasion for positive reinforcement. Since positive reinforcement accelerates behavior, the smaller the improvement one can see and reinforce, the quicker the improvement.

Unfortunately, measurement at work is more often used to increase criticism or to deliver some other form of punishment. That is why measurement at work is resisted. I have probably heard a thousand times, “You can’t measure what I do.”  Of course, that is not true.  Every job can be measured.

Not only can any job be measured, all jobs are already being measured. Even if you don’t have a formal measure, you can bet that your manager is evaluating your performance.  It doesn’t matter whether she thinks you “do a good job,” “do a poor job,” or “do an o.k. job,” she will have an impression or opinion of your performance.  The problem with this form of measurement is that you learn of this measure infrequently, indirectly, or inadvertently.  Furthermore, you rarely get feedback on the specific behavior that led to the measure or the behavior that would result in a better evaluation.

The ability to measure any job is not the problem; the consequences of measurement are the problem.  Athletes don’t resist measurement; video game players don’t resist measurement, they seek it.  The reason is simple. The measurement of performance in games is the occasion for positive reinforcement—a celebration as small as a fist pump or as large as raising the winner’s trophy in the air.

If you are going to measure performance, think first about how you can help the performer get more positive reinforcement for work behavior and accomplishments. Measurement will not only be effective but the employee will be happy to help.  If you start measurement to help the organization improve without consideration of the benefits to the performer, you will engage in behavior that will be frustrating to you and useless to the company.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.