Other Ranks' Performance Appraisal: Yet to evolveBy Ben Taylor October 9, 2019
I sit here writing Performance Appraisal Reports (PAR) on my soldiers while someone else taps away on my PAR. Of course, we all pour effort into constructing objective and actionable feedback for our subordinates. I wonder, though, how universally that same effort is applied and whether the AE360 is really up to its task. The performance appraisal system serves a higher purpose than to facilitate promotion. It is an important developmental aspect of our experience in Army and it undoubtedly affects retention, progression, innovation and, ultimately, capability. I will reserve any meaningful assessment of performance appraisal of the commissioned ranks to my pip-wearing colleagues. However, this article seeks to raise concerns about the adequacy of our Other Ranks' performance appraisal system in an era of Accelerated Warfare . I hope this article will start a conversation which in turn will lead to the development of an alternate or refined system for reporting which is sensitive to these issues.
What is changing and why does this matter?
Australia is stepping forward into an era of international hyper-competition. Accelerated Warfare identifies accordingly that our organisation must stimulate immense innovation, agility and learning to retain our edge. An Army In Motion is one which capitalises on its human potential across all ranks and trades . Thankfully, we draw from an increasingly educated labour pool, suggesting that today's soldiers have unprecedented potential. However, this occurs only in the context of a shrinking labour market. The former Chief of Army, then MAJGEN Angus Campbell, identified this as a critical motivator for the establishment of the commissioned ranks' Enhanced Career Management model . He also conceded that Army's inability to compete with the private sector for talent on remuneration alone meant that we must aim to be 'a first class employer of choice' . The increased geopolitical competition will demand more of Army, which will in turn demand more from our soldiers, who we will increasingly be forced to "fight to get". Millennials will penetrate higher into the chain of command, and so development and career growth will remain among their key professional priorities . Careful attention, therefore, must be paid to the experience that we offer to these soldiers and the way that we shape and prepare them for future warfare.
What are the shortfalls?
My concerns are twofold. First, the nature of our performance appraisal is almost entirely subjective. And second, our twelve performance dimensions are personality-based.
The personal bias of supervisors skew subjective performance appraisal, sometimes consciously but often subconsciously. We condense our assessment into 300 character boxes and pass it on for interpretation and reinterpretation. Research  has found merits in subjective reporting. But its detractions - the erosion of trust and loss of mission clarity - are arguably costs that an organisation striving to 'develop leaders at every level, grow expertise and foster innovation', cannot afford to pay .
Next is the concern about personality based reporting. These performance dimensions paint a picture of an ideal soldier who executes their duties and acts in an ideal way — shifting the focus away from the soldier's actual effect on the organisation which very well may be transformative. Unfortunately, we don't know the ideal personalities of a 2040's Warrant Officer, other than that they must thrive in 'ambiguity and chaos’ . However, if we are to be ready when we do find out, our talent pool must be diverse and their experiences and approaches must be broad. Our appraisal and development of soldiers today will define that readiness.
What are the implications?
These two rather innocuous - and relatively simple - points have severe implications for the organisation. They homogenise our talent pool and they entrench cultural biases.
The link between appraising personality and personal development is critical. During a soldier's career, they periodically receive feedback on these PARs: cultural undercurrents and subjectivity influence each. Periodically then we nudge our future talent towards a perceived ideal personality. Individually, this is not so problematic but across the organisation it may lead to a narrowing in the diversity of characters and approaches. Our misplaced focus on "the way we do business" rather than "the business that we do" could ultimately be limiting our diversity of ideas and innovation.
The point I want to stress is that the Army does not solely define this ideal. Instead, it is determined by the perception and inherent bias of the assessing officer and senior assessing officer, a bias which they've developed throughout their careers. So as the organisation shifts its political and cultural position on specific issues, there is a lag before those changes genuinely manifesting in the feedback given to soldiers. Individual supervisors may even misunderstand or actively disagree with organisational standards, providing unproductive or detrimental feedback to soldiers . This is cultural inertia and its self-sustaining effects have severe implications for cultural change and individual vulnerability, particularly regarding issues such as gender equality.
The development of the Enhanced Career Management model explicitly identified gender and cultural concerns in recognising just how costly exclusive career management models can be . Analysis of other ratings-based appraisal systems found that the idiosyncrasies of the evaluator are a far more significant contributor to variance in performance appraisal than the variation in actual performance . As a result, a system reliant on subjectivity means that cognitive bias goes unchecked, discrimination may sail under the detection threshold, and the soldier’s career is on the line.
Conclusion and recommendations.
These shortfalls have likely always been with us, but Accelerated Warfare positions them as a serious organisational threat. We need to adapt our developmental frameworks to the individual that brings success to our organisation. We must base this on their existing strengths and personality rather than shaping them towards an organisational understanding of what is best. Courage, initiative, respect and teamwork should be the personality "left and right of arc", not the subjectivity of an organisation that has proven especially prone to cultural inertia. Instead, we must focus on the outcome, focus on the effect, the achievements and experiences that these soldiers have in our organisation.
We have the luxury of a young, highly educated Other Ranks workforce, one which - much to the dismay of some - yearns to be challenged, to have a purpose and to be respected. The Chief of Army's command themes validates the development and shaping of these soldiers, which directly relates to our future preparedness, people, profession, and potential. Performance appraisal is something we cannot afford to get wrong and the current system leaves the potential of this incredibly valuable resource to chance. I urge commanders at all levels to be wary of the shortfalls identified herein and the dangers of subjectivity. And I hope to start a conversation to prompt further consideration of the suitability of our performance appraisal systems to deliver the leaders of tomorrow.
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