Getting Real Results From Performance Reviews
When you think of performance appraisals, what comes to mind?
Perhaps it's a dreaded meeting where you have to tell your people what you really think of them. Maybe you see it as a thankless task that the HR department requires, before they'll sign-off on yearly raises. Or could it be an exercise in cutting and pasting comments from a bunch of old reviews to make some "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 under-appreciated.
How people perform is critical to an organization's success, yet we often fail to monitor their progress on a regular basis. Imagine what would happen if you only occasionally looked at your bank balance, and just assumed that funds would be there when you needed them; or if you trusted that your machines would keep working, without any routine maintenance.
For most organizations, people genuinely are "their most important assets." As such, you need to look after your people if you want to get the best from them. One essential way that you can do this is with a well-run appraisal process. Not only does this give you a regular opportunity to feed back on how people can perform better individually, but it keeps you in touch with them, so that you can formally recognize their successes, eliminate problems that are holding them back, and help them achieve their own career goals.
Conducting regular performance appraisals helps you:
- Detect and eliminate barriers to effective performance.
- Pick up dissatisfactions that would otherwise lead people to leave.
- Focus people's efforts in the right direction.
- Motivate people to work towards important goals.
- Help them develop skills and competencies necessary to achieve future objectives.
- Celebrate their successes.
Purpose of Performance Appraisals
Traditionally, performance appraisals have tended to be infrequent, top-down, subjective judgments of an employee's performance. These types of appraisals usually involve a manager conducting an annual critique of past performance, often with little active input from the employee.
Since people's perceptions of their own performance often differ from those of their managers, this kind of assessment often results in conflict, misunderstanding, and hostility. Both sides can become defensive, and the whole process is viewed negatively. As a result, performance appraisals have a poor reputation, and often fail to deliver the positive results they should.
And yet, used properly, performance appraisals can help to build an open, positive, collaborative relationship between individuals and their managers.
They provide a useful forum for giving feedback about what has gone well, or not so well. They're also "punctuation points," where you can look back together at progress towards existing goals, discuss and solve any related problems, and celebrate particular achievements.
Of course, you, as a manager, need make sure you follow up where you can by providing promised resources and by removing obstacles in people's way. However, if you do all of this, you should find that your people perform better, are more motivated, and are less likely to leave because you will have found out about anything that's making them unhappy.
Conducting Effective Performance Appraisals
If the appraisal is to be successful, the person being assessed needs to feel that he or she has had a fair chance to contribute to the outcome. Appraisals should be two-sided discussions, with the person being assessed participating actively and, as a result, feeling properly valued. Just telling someone what they're doing well and what they're doing badly isn't likely to motivate them enough to do better: when you work together, you can develop a shared understanding of what's expected, and establish an ongoing means of monitoring and evaluating performance against agreed goals.
While every organization will conduct performance appraisals in different ways, there are likely to be a number of common elements. These serve to support and strengthen the appraisal's motivational impact.
Before the Appraisal Interview
Consider doing the following before the appraisal:
Review appropriate documentation. Revisit the job description for the person you're appraising, as well as their goal statements from previous appraisals. It's really important that people are clear about what's expected of them in their roles, both in terms of their duties, and also in terms of the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) that they need to develop.
As you do this, think about whether these documents reflect the work that this person actually does. If there's a difference, you may need to rethink the job description, and consider whether past goals are still relevant.
Ask for self-assessment. Consider asking the person you're appraising to evaluate his own performance before the appraisal meeting. This can be done in essay format, where people write down how they think they've done, or by using a "forced choice" or "multiple choice" scale, where people choose statements that best describe their performance. (If you're using one of these questionnaire-type formats, 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. Be prepared with examples to support your ratings, particularly in areas where you feel that the person is under-performing.
- Where necessary, draft a performance improvement plan. This gives you ideas and approaches that you can draw on during the interview, and you can refine this during the appraisal meeting itself. Where you do need to deal with underperformance, see our article on Dealing with Poor Performance for some practical ideas about what to include.
When you have a performance review meeting scheduled, do your best to avoid having to postpone it. Moving it is like saying to the person concerned "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.
During the Appraisal Interview
Consider doing the following during the interview:
Create a supportive environment: First, find a time when you can close the door, and make sure that you won't be interrupted: it's important that you're able to focus solely on the appraisal.
Be enthusiastic but businesslike 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. This helps to keep things objective, and minimizes defensiveness. And remember to stick to specific results and issues: don't make generalizations.
- Cover the positives first: As a manager, you want people in your team to play to their strengths, so that you and they can make the best possible contribution. During appraisals – and any other feedback session – it's all too easy to dive in by looking at problems, and then spend most of your time on these. 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 the other person to volunteer her own observations about weaknesses or performance lapses. This again tends to 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.
As part of this, consider comparing and contrasting your evaluation of the person's skills with her pre-session self-evaluation, and note 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 the person to describe her point of view and try to reach consensus before moving on.
- Identify obstacles: Is there anything that's stopping your team member from performing at her very best? Perhaps a colleague in another department is routinely late in providing necessary information, or maybe your team member is spending increasing amounts of time on a process that could be automated with help from IT?
- Discuss solutions: With problems clearly identified and agreed upon, you can now concentrate on a plan for improvement. Agree what each of you will do, and set specific goals in order to resolve problems.
Set new goals too: The appraisal is a chance to look at how to improve performance, as well as to make plans for future growth and development. Take some time to explore ways in which this person can contribute to the organization's success, and set goals accordingly. And agree how she can develop her skills further, so that she can be ever more effective in the future.
This is also a good time to ask the person about her own career goals. Find out what these are, and discuss ways that you could provide relevant opportunities or craft her role to help her achieve these goals, while still working towards the organization's objectives. (This may not be appropriate in all situations.)
- Summarize: 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.
After the Appraisal Interview
- Plan for regular appraisal meetings. Think about how often you should conduct these meetings. In some organizations, for example, having quarterly sessions may be best.
- Schedule promised actions. Where you've agreed follow up actions, schedule these appropriately, or put them onto your To-Do List or Action Program.
- Remember, these meetings are not optional. On-going performance appraisals are vital if you're going to get the best from your people.
Adopt the principle that no team member should be surprised by something they learn in an appraisal meeting. As a manager, you should give feedback on positive and negative behavior immediately, not later on in an appraisal interview. If you deal with issues right away, you can quickly "nip problems in the bud." If you let problems run, they'll become deeply rooted and serious. And if you make a habit of "catching people doing things right," you'll see a huge improvement in team morale! (For more on this, see our article on Giving Feedback .)
Some people recommend giving feedback as a "feedback sandwich," with negative feedback sandwiched between pieces of positive feedback. In many cases, this is a great suggestion, and it can leave people buzzing with energy and enthusiasm.
However, consider not doing this if people really need to change. By providing final positive feedback, you risk people forgetting your negative feedback, or thinking that it's somehow OK to ignore it.
Where you appraise people who are, themselves, managers or supervisors, consider appraising them on how effective they are at conducting performance appraisals within their own teams. Make sure that they're doing this properly, too!
Performance appraisals don't have to be negative experiences. In fact, they can be a great opportunity to start important, meaningful, on-going conversations with members of your team. By conducting regular performance appraisals, you'll find that you can do a lot to improve your people's performance and job satisfaction.
With a good performance appraisal process, you can reinforce the link between people's performance and their success. Make performance appraisal an integral part of your day-to-day management process, and take time after each appraisal sessions to incorporate the results into your own forward planning. Remember, you aren't trying to catch people doing something wrong; you're trying to help them do really well in the future!