How would you rate your performance? How would you describe your athleticism or physical prowess? How would your rank your pain?

A 10-scale gives people a common tool, an easily understandable – and understood – point of reference with which to evaluate performance, ability, appearance – virtually anything. But it only has value when there is specific meaning attached to the numerical score. “You’re a 7” is all but meaningless unless the parties involved can agree that 7 means “Adequate.” When leaders assign words to the numbers, they have the beginnings of constructive conversations.

A World of 2 – 9s

Everyone would love to perform at a 10-level. In fact, though, too many people suffer from illusory superiority – essentially the belief that they’re above average. That they’re living, breathing 10s. Many of us feel that way – most of us are wrong! The truth is not everyone is capable of producing top tier performances – and, if they are, they certainly cannot expect to do so in every single aspect of their work and lives.

This is an important consideration to keep in mind when deciding the values, or word attributes, for a 10-scale. There is a rarity of 1s and 10s; the world’s full of 2s through 9s, and a 10-scale should reflect that reality.

Putting the 10-Scale into Action

While the 10-scale has multiple potential uses, it’s particularly helpful in performance reviews or coaching sessions. A leader might ask a direct report to rate her performance in the last month and explain why she believes it to be an accurate reflection of her work.

So, let’s say that the employee responds: “You gave me this project, boss, and I knocked it out of the park. I give myself a 9.5 or 10.”

Remember – illusory superiority! Now that the manager has a number, a place from which to start, and can guide the conversation. “I understand, and here’s what I saw: you were three days late plus you didn’t get X done or Y done. You did a great job with the project, when all was said and done, but based on these other factors, I’d give you a 7.”

Now, this is a start, but it’s not where the real value of the 10-scale lies. This is: “You gave yourself a 9.5 or 10, and I gave you a 7, let’s talk about that difference. This is what I consider 9 or 10 performance, and this is what you consider a 9 or 10. Let’s get on the same page.”

The manager has the opportunity to review performance, to clearly articulate expectations for the future and to provide clear coaching on those expectations.

Subjective Objectivity

By their nature, 10-scales allow for subjectivity, as well as objectivity. There is a difference, for instance, between performance and where someone is in their development. A beginner, for instance, might be taking to the work and producing excellent results.

If a more experienced employee did that same work, the leader might only give him a 7, or “competent,” because more is expected at that level. A 10-scale can be used no matter where someone is in his or her development – and it can even be a great way to measure growth along the way.

Starting Conversations

10-scales are as useful in strategic planning applications. A leader might ask: “Where are we with regard to this particular project? Are we moving towards our objective?”

One team member says, “We’re a 5 because we’re falling short here.” Another just responds, “I think we’re at a 9 because we’re succeeding in this area.” They could both be right; they could both be wrong. Regardless, the numbers and the words associated with them spur necessary and rich conversations.

When used properly, any “number-based scale encourages dialogue and exploration. The biggest value, once everyone understands the numbers and corresponding attributes, is it promotes clarity around expectations, constructive discussion, and a more realistic – and holistic – view of a given situation. Surprisingly, the key to making a number scale work is actually in the words!