Judging without being judgemental: Performance evaluations


Harry Greenspun, M.D.

Chief Medical Officer, Managing Director, Health Solutions

Korn Ferry

March 27, 2018

We’d like to hear your thoughts and experiences. Is your organization becoming more agile? How are you adapting to the challenges of the digital economy? 
Join the conversation on LinkedIn

Like many organizations, we are amid performance evaluations and being asked to provide “honest feedback about both strengths and development areas.”  As I stood in my kitchen pondering what to say about various colleagues, my 11-year-old son Zander cut a slice of the banana bread I’d just made and declared, “It’s slightly under baked and the nuts sank to the bottom. You could have tossed them in a bit of flour.”


I learned to cook at an early age, and it is a skill that has served me well.  From being able to prepare my own snacks as a kid to surviving days locked in my apartment studying in medical school to entertaining friends and relatives today, it has proven invaluable. Knowing that, by the time each of my kids was in elementary school, they already had a good repertoire of dishes and adequate knife skills. Of course, they had to start off simply. Recently my teenage son Luca was chagrined to discover, while scrutinizing a picture of him as a toddler, that he was only whisking water in a measuring cup. 


There were only a handful of cooking shows on when I was growing up, so Julia Child was my main inspiration. Today, the boys have virtually unlimited programs to watch, and can find shows dedicated to whatever they are interested in making. We often find ourselves staring into the refrigerator, seeing what ingredients are available, and creating our own “Chopped” challenge. One family favorite has been the BBC’s “The Great British Baking Show.” For those unfamiliar, it is a traditional elimination-style cooking contest, whittling down a contestant each week from a starting pool of 12. Each episode has three challenges (a “signature bake, “a technical challenge, and a “showstopper”). 


Besides the great sportsmanship and comradery the contestants demonstrate, the show is remarkable for its highly detailed and markedly pointed judging. Sometimes open, sometimes blinded, each item is thoroughly scrutinized for appearance, taste, texture, consistency, and beyond. The judges also have an uncanny ability to diagnose what may have caused problems (temperature is too high, inadequate proofing, over-kneading, excessive moisture, etc.). Although I should not have been surprised, my kids had absorbed an enormous number of terms and were now able to provide incredibly specific criticism, both constructive and damning. Occasionally, they could identify precisely what they liked about something as well.


What this highlighted for me was the struggle many people have evaluating others. They lack the vocabulary and framework to provide accurate, constructive, and actionable feedback. In addition, they often cannot communicate feedback effectively, so the message is lost in the process. Wanting to learn more, I sought some guidance from my colleagues Christine Rivers and Jim Aggen.


Valuable feedback focuses on behaviors rather than judgments. The differences are important:




  • Observable
  • External
  • Objective
  • Measurable
  • Specific
  • Descriptive
  • Tangible
  • Visible
  • Assumed
  • Internal
  • Subjective
  • Abstract
  • General
  • Judgmental/evaluative
  • Intangible
  • Invisible

For example:



John did not speak up in the meeting.


John is too passive.


Mary did not deliver the report on time and the numbers were not categorized.


Mary is disorganized.


Chris maintains telephone contact with the client at least once a week.


Chris is an excellent customer representative.


Equally important is to remember that feedback is not a message to be delivered, it is a dialogue to engage in and a process of inquiry. The deliverer must help the receiver hear the feedback. An effective way to do this is by asking questions like, “What does that mean to you?  Is there something about this that surprises you? What examples might fit this?”


This is particularly important when delivering tough feedback, while also demonstrating caring, concern, and respect. Stating your intent up front (“I need to deliver some tough messages”).  This can feel demoralizing to the receiver, so acknowledging the emotion of the moment is important, as is expressing confidence in the other’s ability to improve. 


Being thoughtful and deliberative with the entire feedback process results in a constructive outcome. Of course, if the moment isn’t right or other factors supersede, the message will simply be lost. Our friend Carly (several months pregnant and in the middle of major home renovation) dropped off some cookies to thank us for moving some furniture. We each took a bite of what were clearly an under baked and under-salted batch. Luca and Zander turned to Carly and said, “Thank you.”