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Continuous and instantaneous rating systems, such as 360-degree performance appraisals, are a way of tracking employee performance using the feedback from everybody who interacts with them. The benefits of this system are rooted in the idea that if employees are aware that they’re being constantly tracked, their job performance will increase. ‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers (2013) perfectly captures the system of continuous and instantaneous rating systems through their ‘PartiRank’ and ‘Customer Experience’ ratings, and are a technique of reaching their core organisational goal of everyone “being able to see, and cast judgement upon, every other” (The Circle, p.395). The first step in critically answering this essay question is to consider the conditions which allowed this culture of performativity and use of performance rating systems to become an organizational and cultural norm. The second section of this essay will consider the effects that performance rating systems have on organizational cultures; an increased employee dependence on the organization for validation and “self-actualization” (Maslow, 1943), a reduced sense of ‘real’ individual self and increased toxic competition among employees. The final section of this essay will consider the cultural impacts of performance rating systems on wider society and the way technological advancements have enabled this for younger generations.
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To fully understand the cultural impacts of continuous and instantaneous rating systems in performance management, we must first consider the context in which this toxic managerial discourse has its foundations and has been permitted to cultivate. This socio-cultural shift, best described as the “Turn to Life” (Heelas, 2002), comprised of an increase in the focus of an individual’s priorities towards the ‘self’ and a change in the perceived meaning of humanity; to “self-actualise” – a phrase first coined by Maslow in 1943. Nietzsche initially noticed these structural changes to society in the late 19th century, much before the full extent of the shift had taken place. It was only after his death, and the effects of society’s ‘Turn to Life’ had fully set in, that we have been able to understand the importance of his insights. The focus of “self-actualisation” as an individual’s main purpose in life created a series of knock-on effects that rooted its place in Western culture. Organisations in particular made attempts at capitalising on employee’s desire to self-actualise by creating the first versions of the modern language of Human Resource Management (HRM). This romantic language was paradoxically caused by and simultaneously gave rise to the “self-work ethic” (Heelas, 2002) which dominates managerial systems of the 21st century. With the increased focus on ‘strong’ organisational culture – a resource which theorists have linked to business performance – managers were able to subtly encourage employees’ views to align with those of the organisation and motivate employees to find “meaning through work” (Berger, 1972). Combined with employees’ newly developed desire to find themselves through work, the organisational context in which people existed gave way to aggressive performance management rating systems. The transition to the era of performativity signifies the “end of the era of knowledge” according to Serres (2012) due to the diminishing need to remember information, with it being readily accessible online. This further enables the pressure on 21st-century employees to ‘perform’, as their success is no longer measured by their information holding abilities. The way The Circle presents this, is in the anger Mae Holland faces from her superiors when they realise she has not shown interest in extra-curricular activities; “Do you think your passions are unimportant?” (The Circle, p.187). Management is thereby utilising HRM language as a way of forcing the self-actualisation of employees in the workplace, as an accepted aspect of organisational culture. My theory is that attempts to encourage ‘employee empowerment’ through the language of HRM and increased use of performance management systems are a form of mass control, cleverly disguised as self-management. The cultural impacts of this paradoxically toxic philosophy, where the lines between the work and private-life are blurred, will now be discussed using The Circle as a referencing guide.
The main cultural (and largely organizational) impact of the use of instantaneous and continuous performance rating systems, is the increased dependence of employees on their workplace for validation and as the key tool for self-actualization. This ironically reduces an employee’s individual sense of self and ability to think independently or controversially. In this sense, the relationship an employee has with their employing organization could be likened to the relationship between a child and a narcissistic parent. A child being raised by a narcissistic parent is not trusted to do anything without the judgment and insensitive feedback of the parent, to an extent which is detrimental to the self-confidence and emotional development of the child. The separation between child and parent becomes blurred when the child begins to live solely for parental validation, becoming a mirrored version of the parent. This form of social acting often leaves an internal void in individuality and a complete dependence on an external source for validation. Performance management systems, such as 360-degree appraisals or the PartiRank system from The Circle, mirror this concept into the adult working life. Mae is constantly and instantaneously rated on her Customer Experience performance and PartiRank; she is constantly aware of – and obsessed with – people’s opinions of her. Steadily, throughout the novel, she learns which behaviors are rewarded with higher rankings (and increased devotion to the organization) and is resultantly molded into a very specific type of person, perpetual of the culture of performativity and “governmentality” (Foucault, 1978). While the fear in a relationship between the child and narcissistic parent may encompass physical violence or abuse, the ensuing fear in the relationship between employee and organization is a metaphysical form of punishment; the fear of low ratings and societal exclusion. Mae’s subsequent blind devotion to the organization is further demonstrated at the end of the novel; once she is exposed to the unethicality of The Circle, she doesn’t hesitate to expose the traitor and continue the actualization of her organizational – and simultaneously personal – goals. The conditional and circumstantial love shown to the children of narcissistic parents is a result of the idea that unconditional love only creates “selfish and demanding” (Hendrick, 2016) children, but doesn’t consider the impact this has on the child in the long term. In The Circle, Mae’s performance and journey to self-actualization involve devoting all of her attention to the organization, diminishing her sense of self. Furthermore, the resultant blur between the work and private life of employees is disguised with the attractive prospect of flexible working, although this could arguably be purely a means of allowing 24/7 monitoring of employee performance. This is exemplified in The Circle’s ‘transparency’, where Mae is expected to broadcast her every experience on a camera for millions of viewers to see at any time. Ultimately, performance management is what led to Mae Holland’s loss of individuality and freedom of thought due to the subtle bullying of the organizational culture, molding her into a blind follower through the direct use of rating systems. In this sense, she is the ultimate product of The Circle, further than any tangible product or service, in that she perpetuates the culture of performativity and living in the “Society of the Spectacle” (Debord, 1984).
Another organisational culture impact of instantaneous and continuous performance rating systems is the increased competition among employees, due to high-performance pressure. Because of the increased use of self-management in large organisations, employees can oftentimes overwork themselves as a means of seeming more devoted or loyal than their co-workers. This toxic competition is further perpetuated by management’s use of HRM language to lure employees to reach their human potential; Mae is directly told in The Circle, “we consider you a full knowable human being of unlimited potential” (The Circle, pg. 180) whilst being surrounded by seemingly motivational words like “Dream. Participate. Innovate.” (The Circle, p.1). By putting the responsibility of reaching their potential in the hands of the employees through the guise of HRM phrases like “invest in yourself” (Warren Buffet, 2008), they are cleverly rewarding the employee the empowerment they see necessary for self-actualisation, whilst slyly removing any clear parameters on what good performance is. With this increased ambiguity of what is deemed ‘good performance’ and simultaneous denial of human limits in exchange for “unlimited plenitude” (Costea, Watt, Amiridis, 2015), employees have no choice but to devote all efforts to reaching the never-ending goal of more or better performance, putting themselves under “immense pressure to succeed and be content” (FT.com, 2017). The politics of equality causes the dynamic to evolve to one of high competition; infinite access to recognition is not possible or feasible in our capitalistic society, so employees exist in a dog-eat-dog world where the failure of co-workers is met with a sly, smug smile. This toxic cultural impact is seen in the real recruitment world, with Barclay’s HR department insisting they expect perfection in everything you do; something true to the idea that organisations hold unrealistic expectations of the physical and psychological abilities of their employees. The ignorance of human limits in HRM practices increases the internal pressure on employees, which in the contemporary, cut-throat graduate market, can have fatal consequences as seen in the death of Moritz Erhardt. He “internalised an overpowering culture of performance” (Costea, Amiridis, Watt, 2015) in attempts to be perceived as more highly performing than his peers, which ultimately contributed to his tragic death. The pressure which was exerted on him – and more poignantly the pressure he exerted upon himself – was enabled and encouraged by the competitive conditions of his work environment and the culture of performativity surrounding him. Similarly, throughout The Circle, the relationship between Mae and her childhood best friend Annie develops into one of jealousy and maliciousness by the end of the book, where they no longer share an affinity or care for one another; “Mae was cursing Annie… her smug sense of entitlement” (The Circle, p.355). The expectations they place upon themselves are so unattainable, that the only way to succeed is to perform comparatively better than your peers, leading to an isolated and bitter working environment. Managerial staff are largely responsible for perpetuating this competitive culture of performativity, in that they create a space where employees feel at the centre of importance in the workplace through training, feedback and the opportunity to self-actualise. However, this again could merely be a method of mobilising employees through the romantic language of HRM. Employees could almost feel obligated to devote their lives to an organisation when HRM makes them feel so indebted for providing a space where they can seemingly self-actualise. This is the sad irony of the culture of performativity in that the employees enter the work sphere expecting to focus on their individual career development, but end up entrenched in a forever obligatory relationship with their organisation where more is always expected from them. Ultimately, this further allows the culture of competitive performativity to manifest in the workspace, with employees constantly being able to compare their performance or ratings to those of their co-workers.
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The prevailing cultural impacts of performance rating systems can further be seen in the pervasive performativity of society, non-exclusive to the workplace. It is the “performing culture” that Thrift (2002) theorized; with performance in every aspect of life as the definer of an individual’s success. The “Social Credit System” in China is a chilling real-life example of this; citizen’s credit ratings are dependent on the personal ratings they receive from the public (Collective Evolution, 2017). The combinational use of HRM language and performance rating systems have therefore become the embodiment of consumerism and capitalism in Western societies. Performativity through performance rating systems has also leaked into the University experience for many students. The language of HRM and performativity is now commonplace in Universities, most likely as a way of preparing undergraduates to be the “Fast Subjects” (Thrift, 2002) they are expected to be in the graduate recruitment market. One of the most widely accepted performance rating systems used by undergraduates is LinkedIn; anyone can view your competencies, online CV and what others have approved as being your strengths/weaknesses. This absolute freedom of personal information resembles the focus on ‘transparency’ throughout The Circle, meaning students are consequently being molded into ideal employees from an even earlier age.
Another societal impact of performance rating systems is the increased use of social media as a contemporary performance rating system and the resulting decrease in consumer rationality. Some people now value their personal success on how many ‘likes’ their photos get or how many ‘friends’ they have online, maintaining the idea that people now only make certain purchases so they can prove (online) that they live a certain lifestyle, rather than because they get utilitarian enjoyment out of it. This consumeristic, “audit society” (Power, 1999) of the 21st century has further enabled the emphasis on objects’ impact on social perception rather than its functionality to the purchaser. Increasing numbers of people, therefore, live as a spectacle; posting pictures of everything (interesting or otherwise) that they do throughout the day. Historically, the objects people own has always been an indication of their social class and financial stability, but now (with the rise of technology) there are people who prioritise the latest fashion trends and technologies, over basic “physiological needs” (Maslow, 1943). As another example of the blurring between the public and private life, these newly emerging narcissistic motivators caused by contemporary rating systems are ironically causing Western populations to merge into one identical materialistic person, rather than the unique and ‘special’ people they all believe themselves to be. Mae Holland perfectly sums this narcissistic attitude up when she states “I want proof I existed… All we have is the hope of being seen, or heard, even for a moment” (The Circle, pg. 485). This desire to seem a certain type of person for Facebook ‘likes’, highlights the cultural impacts of performance rating systems on the rationality of consumer decisions. The fear of exclusion or rejection is what encourages more people to partake in this form of social acting; Mae’s devastation that 368 out of 12,000 Circlers didn’t vote her as ‘awesome’ tore her apart and further increased her desire to be validated by everyone on earth. When Mercer isolated himself from The Circle, because he didn’t want to partake in the continuous performance rating systems they advocated, it was incomprehensible to the ‘Circlers’ who mocked him to the point of his demise. This haunting outcome is one that scares others into conforming to the requests of The Circle, and in a real-life context, social media.
The cultural effects of continuous and instantaneous performance rating systems are far-reaching and have become inherent to our consumerist and performative culture. The pervasiveness of 360-degree performance appraisals has leaked into our private lives, enabled by the growth of social media and growing pressure on millennials to act a certain way to be deemed successful. The resentment and malicious competitiveness felt by these individuals further entrenches this culture into their lives, turning everything they do into a spectacle because they know that everyone is watching and judging, much like Mae’s ‘transparency’ in The Circle. The fact these rating systems in both organizations and in private life are continuous and instantaneous means that the toxic impact they have on individuals, becomes an inherent part of their personality and feeds the growing compulsion to obsess over what others’ opinions are. Dave Eggers perfectly captures this phenomenon throughout The Circle and its intricate character development; each character “cites” (Thrift, 2002) a certain cultural impact of contemporary performance rating systems, allowing us to contextualize this into the world around us. This situation is sadly paradoxical; the cultural context of the 21st century and the “Turn to Live” is what allowed the performative focus to originally manifest in our society, but the “Fast Subjects” it has created are the ones perpetuating this culture further, authorizing it as a widely accepted part of civilization. In this sense, when will it end? Humans are ultimately the victims of the performative culture and performance rating systems, but even more crucially: they are the perpetrators and the enablers. This is perfectly summed up with an early, hyperbolic but foreshadowing quote from The Circle when Mae is told “We’ll hammer you with ten thousand tiny nails.
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