The Art of Assessing Performance


Part 1: Errors



“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” -John Wooden-


His swing from the left side of the plate was natural. His bat was quick through the hitting zone, and from his feet to his core to his hands, he was “biomechanically connected.” A college scout in Omaha watched from behind the backstop, scribbling notes. That game, the young shortstop backhanded two ground balls in the hole, and both times, gunned down the runner at first by a step. He also had three hits that game. “Anyone talking to him yet? He has tools. Reminds me of the shortstop at Nebraska right now,” the scout said to me after the game. Ruiz (not his real name) was small for 16-years old, but had all the rest: he could throw, hit, run, and had innate sense of playing the middle infield. I’d known Ruiz his entire life. I’d played baseball with his father and had watched the southpaw hit off a tee in the backyard when he was just three-years old – 12 years later, he had the same swing, as smooth the surface of a stone.


But there was another side to Ruiz. He struggled to maintain even a 2.0 GPA at Rapid City Stevens; he was often the last one to practice, and the first to leave; He’d been demoted from the varsity to the JV because of “off-the-field issues.” A year earlier, at a tryout for the USA Baseball Team Identification Series, Ruiz had impressed the USA scout with his play — thoroughly enough that he was ready to make him the only player from South Dakota that would tryout for the U-15 Junior National Team. Then, in his last at-bat of the day, Ruiz popped up to the infield. He threw down his bat down in disgust, walked a couple steps and lazily jogged to first. The scout turned to the coaching staff, “Mmm. I don’t like that.” And crossed him off of his list.


I was his coach for the American Legion team, Rapid City Post 22. Two weeks after being demoted to the JV, and one week after the scout saw him in Omaha, Ruiz’s mom sent me a message, “He wants to quit. He says baseball isn’t fun anymore.”


That night, I rolled in bed, eyes open. I paced around the house. Why would he quit? I knew I wouldn’t sleep until I had a satisfactory answer. In the two hours I’d been lying in bed thinking about it, I’d reached a number of contradictory conclusions: Ruiz doesn’t want it bad enough; He’s yet another example of an entitled kid who’s incapable of fighting through adversity; You can’t save them all; No, we failed him as a coaching staff, failed to fully understand him, failed to motivate him.


It wasn’t until two months later, I concluded the real problem was in how we’d assessed Ruiz from the beginning, and how if we truly wanted him to change his habits and behavior, and, ultimately, help him maximize his potential, we would first have to understand how to measure his attitude, effort and focus.




More and more, the art of assessment is becoming an interdisciplinary endeavor (which will be addressed in Part II of this series). How can a teacher push a student to reach her or his potential, or even know where to start, if the teacher doesn’t not understand at least the basics of psychology? If we do not understand where the student comes from, how she learns, or what methods we employ that may defeat her? How can a coach assess a player if he doesn’t understand the tenets of kinetics? Many times, a baseball swing can be fixed by simply identifying a kink in the kinetic chain (a principle of bio-mechanics) through slow-motion video analysis. With the physical change, comes improved confidence and performance.


After graduating from Black Hills State, you may be pursuing a career in teaching, coaching, managing, or administration, but regardless, you will be in the people business, and according to experts, the assessments of the people we’re leading are often inaccurate. Our eyes, our perceptions lie to us, and too often, we make snap judgements based on bias or incomplete information.


We resort to archaic methods of evaluation. It’s easier to say, “he just doesn’t want it bad enough” rather than working to find an answer as to why he struggles in school and doesn’t sprint out of the batter’s box. It’s easier to for employer look at the result of a project, one that may not meet our standards, and quickly blame the employee(s) — rather than examining why the failure happened: was it a result of the instructions we gave? Were they fully trained and prepared? Or, did the employee(s) lack in attitude, effort or focus? These are important distinctions.


Before we are able to accurately assess performance, before we give up on an employee, a student, or an athlete, we must first examine our own methods.


According to the publication, Business Insider, combined with a study from The Center for Performance Psychology, we make a myriad of “performance appraisal” errors.


  1. The Halo Effect: This is when the evaluator’s overall positive or negative impression of an employee or a student leads to rating him or her the same across the entire scope of their performance. This is when a manager or teacher really likes or dislikes a person and allows their personal feelings about this person to influence their performance ratings of them.

-This error occured with Ruiz. The coaching staff had developed a negative impression across the board. While some of this negative impression was rightly deserved do to a lack of effort and focus, the all-encompassing indictment of his character negatively influenced his performance and delayed the process of change in his habits and behavior.

  1. The “Like Me” Error: This is when the rater’s tendency is biased in performance evaluation toward those employees or students seen as similar to the raters themselves. We can all relate to people who are like us, but cannot let our ability to relate to someone influence our rating of their performance. Since human biases can easily influence the rating process, it is important to create objective measures for rating performance. Observing behaviors and using available technology to help track performance can take some of the biases out of the rating process. “Like me” bias turns into a problem when we focus too much on style or process and not enough on outcome achieved. We need to embrace diversity in work, thought, and communication styles.

-Because Ruiz’s father was a good player and a friend of the coaching staff, the assumption was made that he was like his father, and as an extension, like we were when we played. This is common in sports. Scouts and coaches often seek out athletes whose parents were successful in sports. While there is evidence (discussed later in the series) that genetics play a significant role in athletic success, it is unfair and ineffective to assess the children of athletes in this way.

  1. Stereotyping: Occurs when expectations and prejudices cause a rater to fail to give the jobholder or student complete respect. Common examples include showing bias based on race or gender. As a result of heightened awareness, blatant stereotyping has decreased. But some evaluators embed stereotyping in the subtext of comments. Usually the comments are demining, unprofessional, or in extreme cases, illegal. The comments negatively impact the psychology of the individual, and performance. More importantly, this can cause the student or employee stress, anxiety and or depression.


  1. Recency Error: This is the tendency to allow more recent incidents (either effective or ineffective) of employee or student behavior to carry too much weight in evaluation performance over an entire rating period. This can be extreme on both ends of the spectrum. Either an employee just finishing a major project successfully or an employee may have had a negative incident right before the performance appraisal process and it is on the forefront of the manager’s thoughts about that employee.
  2. Conflict Adverse/Passive Aggressive: This can happen either when a manager is not comfortable with conflict and avoids communicating with employees or students in a clear, constructive manner. Evidence suggests that people want performance feedback from coaches, teachers and managers, they just want it to be fair and consistent. Passive-aggressive comments about performance only further cloud expectations. Am I doing a good job? Bad job? Does she like me? Dislike me? Ultimately, an employee or student cannot improve performance if they do not fully understand what is expected. Hints, back-channel gossip or unloading a laundry list of performance issues in an evaluation should all be avoided.

If managers, teachers, coaches and other leaders are aware of and recognize these common errors, the performance assessment process will be far more objective and well rounded. This is the first step. Before we analyze others accurately, we must analyze ourselves. If our methods are fair, trust from employees, students and other “subordinates” develops.


Did Ruiz quit? Part II of “The Art of Assessing Performance” will examine new methods for assessment, changing behavior and maximizing potential.

By Jake Nordbye, guest blogger