OnWords: Performance

Jul 24, 2018

Those of us who work for someone other than ourselves become so used to “performance reviews” that we seldom stop to consider what they mean.

Though commonly used in human resources circles, the word “performance” implies that our workplaces are ethically fraught.

The word “performance” is supposed to indicate valuable feedback on how to do our jobs better, how to produce more efficiency and create more value.

But we also know that the main effect is to make us anxious and, if we underperform, subject to dismissal.

When we judge people in terms of “performance,” then, we reduce them to means and not ends—the means of creating better products instead of the end of being employed people.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant warned us against using people as means instead of treating their lives as ends in and of themselves s more than 200 years ago, yet we accept this situation as a given, as an expectation of the role of employee.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t improve: it’s human nature to want to do better. But there are better ways of getting better than reducing people to performance.

We could begin by involving employees and managers more deeply in the work itself, in appreciating the qualities to which performance aspires. 

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