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The Perils of Making Managers Play the "Comparison Game" at Review Time


The following article is a popular reprint penned by the Spitzer Center’s inaugural editor, John Keenan.

Is it possible for a single, apparently sensible business decision to crush morale and poison relationships throughout an organization? I saw something along these lines occur in a company where I once worked, in the wake of an edict driven by Finance and ratified by HR. The company wanted tighter control of the budget allotted for salaries, and they sought to achieve this through tighter control of performance evaluations.
Managers were given a very strict formula to adhere to: On a 5-point scale, the ratings for all the people they reviewed had to average a 3. In practice this meant that if managers wished to give some people higher ratings, they could only do so by giving other people ratings below 3. For every overachiever you rewarded, you had to brand someone else an underachiever.
In theory, the program was aimed at reducing “grade inflation” by managers, and at forcing managers to confront poor performance more aggressively. While there might have been some departments where the policy worked as intended, in many groups it sparked bad decisions, bad feelings, and bad behavior.
If a group didn’t have a balanced collection of over- and under-achievers, managers had to blur performance distinctions or manufacture them. “What am I supposed to do?” one supervisor complained to me. “Tell my best performers they’re average, or tell my good performers they’re below average?” The evaluation process, never easy to begin with, became mired in cynicism and resentment: “Of course that person got a 4! He plays golf with the boss every Friday!” Or, “I did everything I was asked to do and more, and now they’re telling me I’m bottom of the barrel.”
To make matters even worse, employees began to turn on each other; if you wanted a 4, you had to make someone else look like a 2. As performance review time approached, aggressive people started launching preemptive strikes at co-workers. One woman came to my office in tears, complaining, “I asked a colleague for help with a problem I had, and instead of helping me, she ran to our supervisor and complained I didn’t know how to do my job!”
If the leaders who made the initial decision were familiar with The Four Levels of Happiness™, they might have realized they were creating a perfect Level 2 hell. Their goal was budget discipline and aggressive identification of low-performers. What they got instead was a culture split between bitter losers and insecure winners. They submerged the entire company into what Fr. Robert Spitzer calls “the Comparison Game.” It’s a game that “pits us over, under, or against other people, and undermines the potential for win-win relationships,” says Fr. Spitzer.
Over time, more and more managers just refused to play the game, submitting ratings that didn’t average a 3 if that seemed unfair. HR eventually relented; they were weary of all the complaints from angry "losers" (including people in their own group). The company found other ways to hold the line on salaries, and managers were freed from the burden of having to balance praise with condemnation.
How does your company evaluate people? Do you strive for fairness in every evaluation, or does your approach push managers to play a no-win version of the Comparison Game?
- John Keenan