Rethinking Performance Appraisals

business coaching

They are the ceremonial event of the year for white collar workers in every post-industrial economy. They cost a lot of money and produce a mountain of paper work. Managers dread them. Employees resent them.

There is no other business practice that fails so often to bring about the outcomes it sets for itself, but continues to be used year after year.

Some innovative organisations have developed different approaches. Some tinker around the edges, but for most it is fundamentally the same.

It is rare to read an article that says much positive about them, but I did find this one : How Performance Reviews Can Protect You From Unfair Dismissal Claims. I suspect this is the reason so many keep doing them – to cover their backs.

The biggest defect of the performance appraisal is its tendency to focus backwards, to feed-backwards, rather than to feed-forward. Performance appraisals “force” you the leaders or managers, into the role of the critic who passes judgement on your team member’s past performance. This is what causes the tension, stress and anxiety that sees few handling it well.

There is evidence that they demotivate people, are threatening to them, and impact negatively on future engagement. They set managers against their team members because many managers do not have the skills to conduct them in a meaningful way so do it badly. The managers

  • lack good interpersonal skills,
  • lack the courage to give the feed-back required,
  • haven’t prepared well enough,
  • are reactive, rather than pro-active,
  • take an adversarial rather than collaborative approach,
  • lack confidence to do it well.

There is a Better Way.

The performance appraisal should be a summary of the year for that person because ideally you’ve been meeting regularly with your people over the year and working with them on their performance and career development.

No new information that surprises your team member should come up in the annual performance appraisal. It is unfair, unjust, even morally and ethically wrong to bring up new information. Whatever you weren’t happy with about their performance should have been dealt with at the time.

If you didn’t raise it for whatever reason, your failing to do so may be just as big a poor performance issue for you as the one you are raising with your team member. It is important for your credibility that you acknowledge that. Take responsibility for it. Be open with your team member: “There is one concern that I do want to raise with you. I am very aware I should have raised this with you before but to be honest I didn’t know how to do it. I feared your reaction, but I do want to help you with this.” Then go on and raise the issue, asking the team member to help you understand what is happening for him/her in regard to that.

Assuming that there is nothing new coming up in the appraisal and that it is just summarising what the person already knows and has discussed with you before, comply professionally with what your organisation wants. Fill in the document even before the session, even give it to your team member to read. Give them their sheet to respond and when you meet all you do is ratify what you have both written or make minor changes.

You then move on and spend the session talking about what will really make a difference to your team member. Create your own document to record this difference-making discussion. Make it a living, breathing document about career goals, aspirations, hopes and even dreams. Make it a simple yet workable document that grows with the relationship you have with your team member as as he/she grows.

Zenger Folkman, a US company that focuses on strength based leadership development, did research on performance appraisals. Only a small percentage of people found them helpful. Why? Because the manager doing them did not follow the standard procedure.

Become the Coach, Not the Critic.

Coaches do things differently. They motivate, inspire, tap into people’s strengths and show them how to use them to achieve success, to bring out the best in them. They get outcomes from people that they couldn’t achieve on their own. All managers who want to do this for their people need to develop the skills to be the coach.

You can take an engaged and collaborative attitude and communicate it.

“You are on my team. I have a game plan and I want you all to play with me to win this game for our team and for the organisation and for your career development. I want you to work with me, not just for me. This is the role I want you to play – spell out your vision here. Can you do it? Will you do it? What will get in the way of all of us doing this? I’m going to set up a psychological contract with you – if you look after our organisation and work with me to achieve our goals, our organisation will look after you and help you achieve your goals. I will help you align your goals with those of the organisation. I want to help you clarify your goals – where are you now? where do you want to be? what will stop you getting there? Talk with me about how I can help you. We are in this together. It’s a win/win game.”

This is the motivating and inspiring conversation you need to have with your team. This is your coaching “speech” to your team. You feed-forward to what you can do in the future to achieve the fulfillment they want from their work. You focus on their strengths, not their weaknesses, on their behaviour, not their personality. You create an empowering space where they can seize opportunities to become the best, to perform at a higher level than they did last year.

Leaders and managers who develop the skills to work with their people in this way will be highly sought after. These are the soft skills, as equally important for your success as your technical, industry specific skills.

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