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Appraisals: Appalling or Appreciated?

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

“A week ago I had my first annual review with my fairly new boss. It was horrible. He spent one minute on what I did well and about forty-five minutes coming back again and again to something he wanted me to do differently. I walked out feeling about an inch high.

I think I’ve come to terms with that, but the problem is I have to do reviews for my five staff any day now. One of them has potential but also several areas that he needs to work on, and I’m afraid I’ll go soft on him because of the way I’ve just been treated. I don’t want to make anyone else feel as lousy as I was made to! Do you have any pointers I can focus on in preparing for these sessions?”

We’re sorry to hear you had a tough time at your review. Giving effective feedback should mostly be a matter of common sense with a little simple psychology and human empathy mixed in. Your experience explains why many employees dread the annual ritual of the performance appraisal. Interestingly, these sessions are also reported to be one of managers’ least liked tasks!

A key problem with appraisals is that they tend to encourage a win-lose mentality. Not only are appraisals often the precursors of allocations of scarce resources like promotions and bonuses, but they’re also focused on the past which can’t be altered, only debated and interpreted. Neither of these factors supports open, constructive communication.

By being systematic in your preparation over the next couple of days, you’ll put yourself in a stronger position to address the needs of all your direct reports. We suggest you address three Ss – sequence, substance and style – in order to get your key messages across in a way your direct report can respond to in a constructive way.

Sequence

  1. Set up your appointments so the toughest one is third or fourth out of your group of
    five. This is not the time to do the least palatable job first. Work your way in with the
    ones you expect to be more straightforward to get into the flow.
  2. Start the appraisal by asking the individual for his perceptions on his strengths and the areas he feels need work – and listen closely. You might learn something unexpected that will explain things or change your perspective.
  3. You know this one already, we’re sure. Once you’re underway in the session, give your feedback in the sequence of good – area to improve – good. It’s much easier to swallow the feedback sandwich when the areas to work on are book-ended by positive, credible comments. Also, remember that we humans are much more likely to remember negative comments than positive ones. For the feedback to come over as balanced, you really need to make an effort to provide concrete examples to illustrate the positive areas.

Substance

  1. Dig out the goals and expectations you had outlined for this individual. You’ll need to recap these in the meeting. If they look vague, consider that this might have contributed to the poor performance. Make it a specific action point to address this shortly after the appraisal to set both of you up better for next year!
  2. Before you go into the meeting, prepare by writing under each goal or expectation what the themes of strength or of development are. For example, under “responded rapidly to extra training needs for new franchisees” you might have a theme of “efficient methods”. Under this theme, jot down a couple of specific examples of the desired behaviour, for example, “slotted in extra training for Orewa on return trip from Whangarei in March”. If you are struggling for unambiguous examples for a theme, this is the time to ask customers, clients and colleagues for input.
  3. Make sure that you only focus on the areas that really need development. Received wisdom is that employees struggle to handle more than a couple. (How many could you handle?) To help you choose the areas, think not only about the ones that impact the job delivery most, but also those where you can coach the required behaviour. You need to go for areas that can realistically be improved. In the meeting you’ll of course ask the individual for his views on what would help him address the improvement areas…but I always like to have a few practical ideas up my sleeve.

Style

  1. Own the feedback. If you can’t use an honest ‘I’ statement to give the feedback (“I have seen you do X” rather than “people say you do X”) then don’t bring the item up. If you bow to superiors or colleagues pushing you to send a message that you can’t attest to, your direct report will sense it. Moreover, it’s hard to be clear and credible about behaviours you haven’t seen first-hand.
  2. Be specific. This means two things. First, cut out all vague generalising words. “We” is a generalising word. So are “always”, “never” and “all”. Second, brush up on the key examples you want to use to bring the feedback to life. This applies to positive comments too: “great job, Bob” is hopelessly vague. Worse, for insecure overachievers who tend to suffer from impostor syndrome, it won’t be believable.
  3. Aim at the behaviour, not the person. “People think you’re lazy” is just asking for self- defensive, knee-jerk reactions. Instead, “I notice you arrive late, usually on Mondays, without calling to let us know why or when you’ll be in” will give the employee some clues about what to do differently. It also describes the behaviour rather than evaluating it. This gives the recipient room to formulate constructive responses.

Developing a Year-Round Appraisal Technique

Unless you have a fabulous memory – and I lost mine for good during my first pregnancy – you’re going to need notes to cover the months to the next appraisal. In professional services, the timeframes may be shorter but the intense time pressure and sleep deprivation associated with big projects can play havoc with your memory, too.

So, make it a habit to jot down regular comments on the good and the bad you see employees or team members doing. When the time comes to write a backwards-looking review that is as fair as you can manage, you’ll be hugely relieved you did.

Of course it’s pointless to save these records up in silence for the annual appraisal or the end-of-project review. Their real value lies in two things. The first is that you can track progress better; the second is that it’s a reminder to bring the point up in a timely fashion. You can’t always give feedback when you notice the performance issue; but given within a day or two, it’s still fresh enough to discuss sensibly and – we’d hope – for you to model and coach more appropriate behaviours, or for the recipient to practise different behaviours and new skills.

Regular feedback helps you practise your technique too. You should always give appraisees a chance at the outset to offer their perspective on what’s working and what’s not, and what you, their boss or team leader, could do to help them be more effective.
A more radical idea we’ve come across is for you to ask for permission to give feedback! It’s the next best thing to responding to someone asking for your feedback. In essence, if the person is open to what you say, s/he is far more likely to listen closely, co-operate and contribute actively to the solution.

The Power of Positive Feedback

Finally, don’t forget positive feedback is an extremely positive tool. Very few people are, or realistically can be, good at all aspects of their jobs. Try to work out what your employees’ unique strengths are and work on harnessing those. While people are most likely to remember criticism, research shows they are also more likely to respond to praise. We’re not suggesting you shouldn’t correct behaviours or attitudes that are counter-productive. What we are suggesting is that you give the same emphasis to what your direct reports are good at.

Being aware of one’s weaknesses doesn’t necessarily translate into action or improved performance. A good understanding of strengths can lead to building on them, addressing weaknesses and ultimately improving performance.

The 15 Common Errors Managers Make When Appraising Employees

Summarised from HRN Management Group’s online resources.

  1. The halo effect – allowing one very good (or bad) event or behaviour to affect the whole appraisal.
  2. Allowing personal biases to make the appraisal unfair and inconsistent.
  3. Not knowing employees and their work well enough to make credible evaluations.
  4. Over-emphasising isolated events – usually more recent ones.
  5. Lenient appraisals which remove opportunities for coaching better performance and
    set up problems for the future.
  6. Appraising potential worth rather than current performance.
  7. Postponing the appraisal – this sends the message that the employee and the process don’t matter.
  8. Poor preparation – ‘seat of the pants’ doesn’t produce credible results.
  9. Using the evaluation as a disciplinary session – don’t mix the two. Disciplinary issues should be addressed as soon as they arise.
  10. Over-emphasising good performance – excessive praise is not credible and risks sending a signal that something is actually wrong!
  11. Not following through – make sure you check up on the action points discussed in the appraisal.
  12. Avoiding the tough issues – if you don’t grasp the nettle, it will spread. Don’t hope the problems will go away. They won’t.
  13. Evaluating attitude – you’ll get further faster if you focus on observable actions and results rather than very subjective assessments of attitudes. Attitudes are very hard to change.
  14. Accepting excuses – even if an excuse is valid, you will still need to a solution and action plan to try to manage the situation better in the future.
  15. Ignoring employee feedback – if you ask for feedback and ideas, then try to incorporate them in the agreed future actions.

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