An ancient Indian history of performance appraisals
A history of performance appraisals will tell you that performance appraisals send their roots back to the Industrial Revolution, when technical advances, like the Spinning Jenny and the Steam Engine, created a need for improved work methods and productivity. But here is a secret. Performance appraisals go back much, much further than that.
Ancient Hinduism believed in performance appraisals, but with a twist. They had an automated process for it, which worked brilliantly, flawlessly and beautifully, across lifetimes and centuries. It was called the law of cause and effect, or karma. The beauty of this process was that you didn’t need a manager, it was ingrained into the fabric of the universe within which you operated, and hence uncorrupted by personal biases. This system had only one flaw, called memory. Humans could not remember what it was that they were being appraised for, and so some Hindus became bitter, some became arrogant, and almost all of them became passive. Also, the concept of karma required immense faith in the process, which wasn’t easy at all, and hence the need for a process owner arose.
Narayana, in his role as preserver and sustainer, embellished with all things glorious, including a divine consort who was wealth herself, was the perfect process owner, and what’s more, he could be appeased by chants, worship, and ritual. Big bonuses were now a possibility. Narayana could cut through karma if he so desired, so you could have really low karmic ratings, but if you offered him a lot of clarified butter, miracles could happen. The mass appeal of this was, needless to say, tremendous. As the glorious Narayana’s power grew, the team size increased drastically, and self-appointed managers, or Brahmins, came into the picture and seized control of all the paths that led to Narayana. Performance appraisal entered its darkest hour.
The Brahmins used performance appraisal as a tool to create fear in the minds of the people. Some of them made a lot of money by selling performance management tools coated in archaic jargon that promised accurate measurement and improved future ratings. People were judged more on the basis of past performance rather than present capability and future potential. They were given KRAs that were not open to negotiation. There was no freedom to move across roles and empathy was lost to a cold calculation. The common man lived in great fear, at the mercy of these managers. This was a corrupt system, the managers accepted gifts and bribes, so some employees could get away without working, and some worked hard all their lives without promotion or reward.
Many centuries of exploitation later, a few wise men rose from the common ranks and proclaimed that everyone had a direct line to the process owner, and to the CEO, and all one needed was love.
“Scandalous!”, the pundits said. Were these bohemian saints now suggesting that love affairs at the workplace, with your boss and your boss’s boss, was ok? Were they advocating an equal system where even the chai wala chotu could walk into the CEO’s office and have a free, loving conversation with him? Entranced by the Bhakti movement though, the employees were no longer listening.
As if this wasn’t enough, some even went far enough to say that the workplace was an illusion and that all roles were just that, roles played by actors on a stage. In reality, everyone was equal. Performance appraisal too was part of that grand drama and there was no need to take it seriously. This put many employees in a state of suspension which made them feel like running away to the Himalayas.
It seemed that a balance to this tendency was achieved by the profound counsel of Krishna to Arjuna– You cannot run away from the performance, so perform with detachment without worrying about the appraisal and the bonuses.
Other influences on performance appraisal brought their own worldview with them. Monotheistic religions from the West delayed the performance appraisal process for all eternity, making people wait for a day of judgment for a very very long time, until the Founder would one day, find time to come down and appraise all performances in one long dramatic event. The catch here was that people only had one chance to get it right, and great suffering awaited those who got it wrong, and so they became cautious, extra careful and often, rigidly moralistic.
A strange state of confusion has prevailed and continues to prevail even now, and many different philosophies coexist, including the idea that performance appraisals are completely unnecessary and are the root cause of much inequality and conflict, even terror.
But a new postmodern wave is emerging. It seems that employees are now realizing that they are their own process owners, and no one can appraise their performance better than they themselves, because it is to themselves, to their personal and professional circles and to their spheres of influence that they owe an honest evaluation of how they are utilizing their time and vital life energy. And so, self-responsibility and co-creation are the new buzzwords.
The corporate world has still to catch up with that.