How to evaluate your performance
Whether you are interested in sport, business, academia or the arts, there is one question that every individual has to answer: Are you happy with your performance? The answer to that will not only determine how you view your past, but also will set a precedent for the future. It is easily argued that if a person is constantly frustrated by their performance, this will lead to an accumulation of negative feelings, which will themselves be associated with that activity…
So for example a person who repeatedly has trouble with public speaking, will gradually accept that he is not a very good public speaker, and thus may tend to avoid it. Similarly, a student (“John”) ashamed of his performance over many years, may start identifying himself as a “poor student”. This is miles away from a “good student that did poorly on an exam” or “a student that did not do well this one time”. The “poor student” has incorporated the dissatisfaction with his performance to his identity. This then shapes his own expectations from himself. In some ways, this relieves him from the responsibility (“poor John, this is how he is”), but on the same note, takes away his ability to change.
What if though “John” evaluated his own performance as positive, or at least improving? What if he could “see the bigger picture”, one that he is actually good at school, just needs to do some things differently next time? Such reframes empower John, or anyone in a similar situation, and rely solely on how John evaluates his own performance.
Therefore, how we measure our performance has the power to reshape how we think of ourselves, and what we expect from ourselves. At the same time, untamed optimism about our performance might lead us to take uncalculated risks and ignore warning signs, with potentially catastrophic consequences. So how does one find the balance?
First of all, have a goal: A fork is a very poor knife, and a knife a hopeless fork… evaluation has to be relevant to what we want to achieve by the performance. Every performance has to be evaluated in terms of a longer-term goal, with criteria set before the performance itself. Otherwise, one is opening up to unrelated criticism or praise. How one’s hair looks may or may not be relevant to a performance, so only in the first case should it be taken into account…
Moreover, this goal is better personally chosen, rather than set by others. The reason for this is that it controls where validation comes from: If we accept the goal as given by someone else, then the evaluation ultimately stands with the person setting the goal. What we truly want then is to satisfy that person, not satisfy the goal itself.
This shifts the motivation from internal (“I want to do this”) to external (“I have to do this because they told me”). As both the motivation and the evaluation are externally controlled, the person is restricted from the outset, and no performance may be truly satisfying… even a simple reframe of the goal from “I have to do this project” to “I want to impress my boss/supervisor”, puts the individual back on the driver’s seat and also opens up other options for action.
Goal setting is a huge topic by itself, but for now we will assume that a goal has been agreed. Part of strategic goal setting is also knowing how to recognise that the goal has been achieved. For example, for a runner the goal could be to beat her personal best, and also improve her technique. Whatever the goal, it has to be stated explicitly, as how they know they have achieved sets the criteria for the goal. In the runner’s example, there are two criteria: what was the time and how good was the technique. Clearly separating these criteria is the second step on evaluating one’s performance.
It is very important to set a goal where we can actually influence the outcome. This might seem obvious, but surprisingly, it is the biggest revelation to many. Consider sports for a second and let us take weight-lifters as an example. Everyone that goes to a competition will want to win; however no-one can control how much another competitor will lift! Thus, winning the competition is outside the person’s control. Setting winning as the goal is therefore bound to make the person feel powerless. Moreover, whether one succeeds is not really a good measure of the performance, as it is too dependent on other people’s performances. Instead, a better idea is to measure the performance by things we can control, such as beating the personal best.
It is even better if these criteria are set in both terms of facts and emotions. For someone giving a presentation, this could mean “keep in time, speak with a clear voice, feeling grounded and confident”. This expands the evaluation of a performance from only fact-oriented to process-oriented. Often with the help of an expert, one can then start working on clarifying and determining that feeling state, and create a zone that the mind automatically goes to. Of course, the feeling-goals and fact-goals have to be compatible and realistic. Another benefit from a feeling-criterion is that only the person giving the performance can judge it, thus again empowering the individual.
Now we have the criteria to evaluate the performance, the next trick is to use them as scales: All-or-nothing criteria with no intermediate measures make it very hard to quantify gradual change, which is actually the way skills are acquired. One neat way to evaluate the performance is to mark the achievement of each criterion as a percentage: 100% would be a spotless performance on each criterion. For the most analytically-oriented, this can give a great way for later analysis, and also a way to evaluate parts as well as the total performance.
Yet, one may argue that all this is pretty useless for a one-off performance. There lies the fallacy: no performance is really one-off. Even the final outcome of months of preparation will be based on rehearsals, and the quality of these rehearsals will largely determine the quality of the performance. Thus, we should also evaluate the rehearsals to get an average of how successfully each criterion is fulfilled.
This brings on the next point: use averages. Any good scientist would advise that there is just too much randomness on a single measurement of any kind – this is equally true for a performance. Tracking how the criteria are fulfilled on average through time will cancel many random circumstantial influences, and give a better picture. Also, if we look too closely at each performance, we may get distracted by the ups and downs that are natural in any journey. Instead, tracking the averages will show how one progresses and if it is time to re-set the goals. Lifting the average score will give a greater chance of future success. This by itself is a good measure of what your performance is.
Finally, any evaluation is best written down. This will leave a trace of evidence of how the performance changes, and how one is doing on the long run. If we want to decide whether to continue with a hobby or venture, this trace will help remind us how far we’ve come and how much we’ve achieved. It is a known problem, that many people forget or discount their own efforts and struggles. This can work in two ways, by making the achievements seem more effortless than they were, or by dismissing what has been done. Either way it means that we may get an unbalanced view, unless we regularly evaluate and actually write down our evaluation. This evidence may then be used to build resilience for the next challenges and make us aware of the commitment we’ve made.
What is more, evidence brings in another logical level of possible analysis between the actual performance and the evaluation. This will compliment the “feeling analysis” (how the performance felt), which is often skewed by the personal best or worst. The reason for this lies on brain anatomy (as LeDoux showed) and also human evolution.
So, to summarise, we want to judge our performance with respect to a clear goal, using both fact and feeling criteria that we can actually influence, and do that on scales and on a regular basis. This may seem a lot of work - and in a way it is! However, this empowers people to be their own judge of how they fair and thus feel responsible, and “response-able”, about their work. This is one of the keys to sustaining motivation in the long run and avoiding negative feeling spirals which could lead to burn-outs.
An experienced therapist/coach can help you with every one of the above steps, from goal-setting to zone-creation; as to ensure your own evaluation enhances your identity and helps you achieve your goals.
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