Should a ScrumMaster Do Performance Appraisals for the Development Team?

23 April 2014

Ajay Kabra
QAI India Ltd

A ScrumMaster recently asked me if he should take over responsibility for year-end performance evaluations, since he was closer to the work than the functional manager for the team. It's not the first time I've heard this question, and as more companies begin to use Scrum, I'm sure I'll hear it again.

It does make sense for a ScrumMaster to give feedback. But when it comes to taking over (or participating in) the annual appraisal, ratings, or rankings, my answer is "No. No. No!" There's a fundamental conflict between coaching to improve effectiveness and evaluating for ratings, rankings, raises, or promotion.

Scrum practices and values put the emphasis on collaboration and communication. The performance appraisal creates an agenda divide: The employee uses it to try to highlight his or her performance in order to get raises and promotions, while the manager uses it to divvy up scarce departmental resources. Both agendas can be a motivation for conscious or subconscious distortion of the data, or for behaviors that ultimately benefit the person doing them but not the company or customer. The appraisal fosters low-trust competition within the team rather than self-organizing to meet customer needs.

W. Edwards Deming described performance reviews as one of the seven deadly diseases of management:

Personal review systems, or evaluation of performance, merit rating, annual review, or annual appraisal, by whatever name, for people in management, the effects of which are devastating. Management by objective, on a go, no-go basis, without a method for accomplishment of the objective, is the same thing by another name. Management by fear would still be better.

Another quote from Deming puts his thinking in context:

The fact is that the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance.

Yearly appraisals, performance reviews, and evaluations emphasize hierarchy and differences in status. ScrumMasters are in service to the team; they don't manage the team. Creating a higher status position (evaluator) is an impediment to the team's self-organization -- and to the team members learning how to give each other feedback and manage their own performance.

People who receive high ratings may bask in the glow of affirmation. However, psychologists know that 80 percent of people believe their performance is above average. Statistically that can't be true; yet, on an emotional level, that is what most people believe. When people receive a lower (or an unexpected) rating, they focus on the reasons they deserve a better rating. That impedes honest discussion about skills and behavior.

When people only have serious conversations about performance once a year (or even once a quarter), it leaves too much time for problems to fester. Why let a problem continue? Why suppress team productivity? When a team member is doing something that's detrimental to the team, the time to tell him is now. When a team member's work isn't what it needs to be, the time to tell him is now. When people receive that information long after the fact, they wonder, "Why didn't he tell me sooner? Doesn't he want me to succeed?" That erodes trust, and trust is a prerequisite for effective coaching.

Participating in individual rating telegraphs the message: "I say we're a team, but I don't really mean it. I'm still looking at individual performance, not team accomplishment." That undermines the ScrumMaster's role in improving productivity, helping the team self-organize, and improving the life of the team.

"But," you may say, "the ScrumMaster is closest to the day-to-day performance of people on the team."

That's true. So, by all means give feedback on day-to-day performance and patterns of behavior. Provide clear, specific information about what you observe. Help people understand the impact their behavior and work results have on the team. That's information that will help team members make choices to continually improve their skills, professionalism, and contribution to the team. By all means, coach people as they learn new skills. Help the team learn to self-organize by holding up a mirror to their processes, and challenge them to think and decide on their own.

The ScrumMaster and team members know how each other are performing. When the ScrumMaster and the team are committed to giving each other congruent feedback, there's no need for a performance evaluation: People know how they are doing and are working to improve every day.

What can you do if, as a ScrumMaster, you are pressured to provide input for a performance review?

Explain that you have been giving feedback throughout the year (or quarter). Give examples of how you have provided feedback and seen changes day to day (without naming names).

Don't provide feedback for the manager to pass along, even if it's feedback you've already given to the other person. The manager won't have the context to provide clarification or answer questions. Pass-along feedback -- especially when it's new information -- creates a tattletale dynamic. The recipient of pass-along feedback wonders why the ScrumMaster didn't give the feedback directly, and that damages relationships. Explain to the manager that everything that needs to be said has already been said directly.

Explain that the work is interdependent, so it's impossible to pull apart individual contributions. You are focusing on improving the performance of the team, and an individual performance evaluation will detract from that focus.

Create a team performance review in which the team members discuss how the team is doing and where the team needs to improve. Do this in a face-to-face discussion, not through anonymous comments or ratings (I'll say more about how to do this in a future article). Provide the team's own assessment of their performance to the manager. The manager can then choose how to apply that assessment in the mandated performance appraisal process.

Managers believe they must engage in the ritual of annual evaluation -- because they've always done it. HR may have targets for percentage of reviews completed. Neither has a thing to do with actually improving performance. Individual performance evaluations and annual reviews are an impediment. Steer clear of them -- they are a vestige of command and control that Scrum can do without.

Last words

The performance appraisal isn't always the most popular subject, but evidence has been in for quite some time that it is more harmful than beneficial. There's room for more research and thinking, but not for improving the performance appraisal. Instead, the most important research is in engaging with your system and using continuous improvement and inspecting and adapting to improve both the relationships in the workplace and the systems for getting work done. There are solutions available for how to set pay without performance appraisals, and for addressing legal concerns. If you're willing to be a transformational leader, will you bring these ideas to your workplace?

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

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Tim Baffa, CSM, 4/23/2014 3:50:30 PM
Excellent, excellent article Ajay! Thank you.

All that I can possibly add is that, when it comes to individual evaluation, not only team performance but also an examination of how they are improving as a resource to the organization (through skills and knowledge gained, assisting others, professional growth, etc) can provide valuable input into an evaluation process.
Ewan O'Leary, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 4/23/2014 5:27:08 PM
Thanks Ajay. This really encapsulates my thinking on the matter. Really, I frequently find myself raising the performance evaluation process as an organizational impediment. For managers who are true servant leaders, rethinking the whole performance review process is probably a good way to atone for introducing it in the first place! Alas, I have never seen this happen in reality.

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