Getting Real Results From Performance Reviews
Performance reviews are a chance to offer constructive feedback and set goals together.
When you think of performance appraisals, what comes to mind?
Perhaps it's a dreaded meeting in which you must pull up a team member for their failings. Maybe you see it as a box-ticking exercise in order to get your boss to sign off on yearly raises. Or perhaps it's just a case of cutting and pasting comments from old reviews to make "new" ones?
For too many people, it's all of the above and worse! As a result, this potentially powerful tool for managing and improving people's performance is underused and underappreciated.
How people perform is critical to an organization's success, yet many organizations fail to monitor their progress properly. And COVID-19 has drastically changed the way that many of us work, so regular contact and feedback are more important than ever.
In this article, we examine what makes a good appraisal, what you and your team member should get from it, and how to run one – even under lockdown.
What are Performance Appraisals For?
An effective appraisal process provides ongoing opportunities to recognize your people's successes, and to give them constructive feedback on their performance.
Regular performance appraisals help you to detect and eliminate barriers to high performance. You can use appraisals to focus people's efforts in the right direction, and motivate them to work toward their goals.
Appraisals also encourage people to develop the skills and competencies they need to achieve these goals.
How Should Performance Appraisals Work?
When used properly, performance appraisals can build an open, positive, collaborative relationship between individuals and their managers.
Traditionally, appraisals tended to be infrequent, top-down, subjective judgments of an employee's performance. They usually involved a manager conducting an annual critique of past performance, often with little active input from the employee. This could lead to misunderstandings, conflict and poor results.
That process has changed in many organizations. Now, the performance appraisal process will likely involve more frequent, less formal meetings, and collaborative goal-setting. The Five Conversations Framework is a great way to structure your team's appraisals.
Performance Appraisals and COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to make huge changes to our working practices. Regular time in the office feels like a thing of the past, and virtual meetings are the new reality.
People have had to adapt to a new working environment. They may have health or financial worries, childcare issues, or other caregiving responsibilities. And they may feel isolated from their friends and colleagues. So, it's vital to conduct appraisals with compassion and understanding – without allowing the current situation to become a scapegoat for poor performance.
Conducting Effective Performance Appraisals
For an appraisal to be successful, the manager and team member must contribute equally to the outcome. The appraisal should be a two-way discussion, with the appraisee participating actively and feeling properly valued.
This allows you to develop a shared understanding of what's expected from both parties, and to establish a plan to monitor and evaluate performance against agreed goals.
Before the Appraisal Interview
Consider doing the following before the appraisal:
Review the Appropriate Documentation
Revisit the job description for the person you're appraising, and their goal statements from previous appraisals. It's important that people are clear about what's expected of them, both in terms of their duties, and in the knowledge, skills and abilities that they need to develop.
As you do this, think about whether these documents accurately reflect the work that this person actually does. If there's a discrepancy, you may need to rewrite the job description and consider whether past goals are still relevant.
Think About Wider Assessment Criteria
Be sure that you're seeing the whole picture of your team member's performance, particularly if you're working remotely. Find out from other team members whether your appraisee is communicating and collaborating well (but make sure you are tactful and discreet about doing so).
Consider assessing other aspects of your appraisee's performance, too. A team member who shows resilience and emotional intelligence, for example, may be performing well, even if their objective key indicators don't reflect that.
Also, take into account whether the team member has taken on extra or different responsibilities as a result of COVID-19. If so, your appraisal needs to reflect that.
Ask for Self-Assessment
It's a good idea to ask your team member to evaluate their own performance before the appraisal meeting. They can write down how they think they've done, or you can use a "forced choice" or "multiple choice" scale, where people choose statements that best describe their performance.
If you're using a questionnaire-type format, make sure that the options you present reflect the competencies you ask for within the job description.
At the same time, ask if there are any issues outstanding that you may need to prepare for. That way, you can address these issues fully and comprehensively at the appraisal interview.
Complete an Assessment of the Individual Yourself
Whichever method of self-assessment you choose, complete the same task from your own perspective. Don't let positive or negative bias cloud your judgments. Be prepared with examples to support your ratings, particularly in areas where you feel that the person is underperforming.
Where necessary, draft a performance improvement plan. This can act as a helpful guide that you can refine during the appraisal meeting. Where you do need to deal with underperformance, see our article on Dealing with Poor Performance for practical ideas about what to include.
When you have a performance review scheduled, do your best to stick to that time and date. Moving it is like saying to that person, "there's something more important than you." This is a particularly bad message to be sending when you're discussing something as personal as performance.
Get the Technology Right
If you need to carry out an appraisal online, make sure that you and your team member have access to a suitable platform.
For a relatively informal appraisal, or for shorter check-ins, platforms such as Skype, Slack or Zoom can work well. They all offer basic video calls, which can also be recorded.
For more complex reviews, you may need to share a number of documents. In this case, applications such as Microsoft Teams, Citrix™ GoToMeeting or Cisco WebEx® may be more suitable.
Video conferencing can be a great way to display nonverbal cues when you can’t have an in-person discussion. However, bear in mind that some people might feel self-conscious using it.
Video calls can also be mentally draining. They demand more constant, intense focus than face-to-face meetings, and continuous eye contact can be uncomfortable. So, try to keep the appraisal as brief but thorough as you can.
During the Appraisal Interview
Consider doing the following during the interview:
Create a Supportive Environment
First, schedule your meeting for a mutually convenient time, free from distractions.
Be enthusiastic but structured in your approach. Explain the agenda for the meeting, and then cover everything you said you would: performance relative to expectations, goals achieved, future goals, any issues which may be getting in the way of goals being achieved, and so on. Remain objective throughout, and avoid generalizations.
Cover the Positives First
As a manager, you want people in your team to play to their strengths. During appraisals it's all too easy to focus solely on the problems. Don't fall into this morale-busting, performance-sapping habit: make sure that you leave plenty of time to cover the positives!
Address Any Areas for Improvement
Encourage your team member to offer their own thoughts about weaknesses or performance lapses. This can reduce defensiveness, and it sets a good tone for the rest of the meeting. When the other person is talking, listen actively, and, where appropriate, repeat information to make sure that you understand exactly what is being said.
Consider comparing your evaluation of the person's skills with their pre-session self-evaluation and discuss any significant differences. When you give and receive feedback, be sure to focus on the situation – not the individual. And where there are disagreements, allow your team member to describe their point of view and try to reach consensus before moving on.
No team member should be surprised by something they hear in an appraisal. Give feedback on positive and negative behavior immediately, rather than saving it for appraisal time. And "catching people doing things right," can vastly improve team morale! (For more on this, see our article on Giving Feedback.)
Identify Obstacles and Solutions
Is there anything that's stopping your team member from performing at their very best? Perhaps a colleague is routinely late in providing necessary information, for example.
Once you've identified any problems, agree how you will solve the issue together and set a deadline to hold yourselves accountable.
Set New Goals
The appraisal is a chance to make plans for future growth and development. Take some time to explore how this person can develop their skills to contribute to the organization's success and set goals accordingly.
Bear in mind that you will likely need to recalibrate existing goals to reflect the changed business environment during the pandemic.
End with a clear summary of what was discussed and what was agreed. Plan another meeting if you need to follow up about anything. End on a positive note, and make sure that this is the start of an ongoing feedback process, rather than the end of the discussion until next year.
When you appraise people who are, themselves, managers or supervisors, consider assessing how effective they are at conducting performance appraisals within their own teams. It's your responsibility to ensure that they're doing this properly, too!
After the Appraisal Interview
When you're done, think about the future. Plan for regular appraisal meetings. Think about how often you should conduct these meetings.
Remember, these meetings are not optional. Ongoing performance appraisals are vital if you're going to get the best from your people.
Performance appraisals should be positive experiences. They can be a great opportunity to start important, meaningful, ongoing conversations with team members. By conducting regular performance appraisals, you'll find that you can do a lot to improve your people's performance and job satisfaction.
Remember that during the pandemic your people are working under unfamiliar, potentially difficult conditions. Be understanding and supportive.
When appraising a team member virtually, make sure you get the technology right, and create a supportive environment for the call. Bear in mind the stress a video call can produce, and limit the time you spend in them.
With a good performance appraisal process, you can reinforce the link between people's performance and their success. Make performance appraisals an integral part of your day-to-day management process, and take time after each appraisal session to incorporate the results into your own forward planning.
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