4 min read

Dude, Where's My Bar?

Dude, Where's My Bar?
This movie was lots of fun for my idiot teenage brain. All credit to 20th Century Fox

Performance evaluation has been on my mind a lot lately.

It's probably because it consumed my every waking moment for the first month or so of this year, and it's not all that long before I need to do it all again, because the end of the financial year is fast approaching.

Despair aside, in order to evaluate someone, there has to be a bar. Below the bar is bad, near the bar is okay and above the bar is good.

But the bar isn't quite as static as you might think.


The bar is the set of expectations for a person who is, at some point, going to have their performance evaluated. It consists of behaviours that the person should exhibit and outcomes that they should produce.

From a usage point of view:

  • If the person did what was expected, then they created impact and that should be enough to justify the expense of employing them.
  • If the person did more than what was expected, then they are clearly more valuable in the scheme of things, so should be rewarded in some way. I mean, maybe extrinsic motivation doesn't work, but still, it's better than a kick in the teeth.
  • If the person did less than what was expected, then their value is questionable and some sort of change is necessary to bring things back into balance and to ensure the money being invested into them is delivering enough of a return.

Most organisations put structure and process around the concept of the bar. The aim being to establish clear guidelines around what is expected from a person who is filling a certain role at a certain level of seniority, such that the impact of situational differences from team to team are minimised.

The most common way that I've seen for an organisation to actually create said structure is via the publishing of growth or role profiles, which break things down into a set of behaviours or outcomes that anyone filling the role is expected to be able to demonstrate.

Thus the bar exists.

In theory.

Despite how simple it looked above, there is some nuance in actually using the bar in practice though.


The first and most obvious way to use the bar is to compare people against it directly.

I like to call this objective evaluation.

At the start of the performance evaluation period, expectations are set and a shared understanding of what the bar is, is established between the manager and the employee.

From that shared understanding, plans are created, actions are executed and results manifest. Some of those things might change over the evaluation period as a result of reality interfering, but the general location and shape of the bar doesn't.

Come the end of the performance evaluation period, post comparison to that initial bar, some sort of outcome is generated. A rating, salary changes, bonus amount, it doesn't really matter what the outcome actually is, just that there was one and it was derived from that initial shared understanding.

One benefit of this approach is that people know where they stand at all times and can set themselves up for success or failure as necessary.

Of course, the downside is that if things change for the business during the performance evaluation period, there is a lack of flexibility in how the process can adapt to the changes.

I'm not saying that the bar can never change though.

In fact, it should. It should be re-evaluated on a regular basis based on the needs of the business. Any resulting changes then need to be carefully and clearly communicated to everyone involved in a timely fashion.


There is another way to use the bar during performance evaluations, which is to treat it more like a guideline and to re-evaluate it dynamically based on how everyone is actually going.

I like to call this comparative evaluation.

The start of the period looks the same; expectations are set and a shared understanding of what the bar is, is established between the manager and the employee.

The middle of the period also looks the same; plans are created, actions are executed and results manifest.

It's the end of the period that differs significantly.

Instead of just evaluating the person against those initial expectations and calling it a day, everyone of a similar role and level are compared or calibrated against each other and the bar is adjusted accordingly.

That is to say, if most people are doing really really well, smashing it out of the park and delivering all sorts of amazing value quickly and effectively, then that becomes the new bar.

From my experience, this doesn't happen formally (i.e. the adjusted bar is not published like the initial one tends to be), but it definitely does happen. The result might feed back into those static set of expectations, but it doesn't have to. It can just be limited to the specific performance evaluation period.

The benefit of this approach is flexibility. Based on the business need and situation, the outcomes of the performance process can change.

Another benefit is that it can create higher overall performance. Even if the new bar is not formally recognised, the people who participated in the evaluation now have a shared understanding of what it is and, if they are sufficiently motivated, will strive for that new level, creating a performance arms race of sort.

However, a downside is that it can demotivate people. Changing the bar dynamically can feel like a rug-pull for the people who had planned around it, because they get to the end of the period and aren't where they expected to be through no fault of their own.

And Then?

I'm not a massive fan of individual performance evaluation.

I like to think of groups of people as being more than the sum of their parts and that not everyone inside that group needs to be demonstrating exactly the same sort of behaviours and outcomes at all times, even if they share the same role and level of seniority.

It's rare that I get to decide whether or not to do performance evaluations though, that decision is usually made far far above my level of control. So, if I had to pick a poison, I would pick objective performance evaluation every time.

If I'm going to put a bunch of effort into setting clear expectations for the people I'm responsible for and working with them to meet or accomplish those expectations, the last thing I want to do is have to come back to them later and tell them that they didn't do as well as we both thought they would as a result of factors entirely outside of both of our understanding.

That doesn't feel good for anyone involved.