Performance – And Performance Appraisals

Intellectually, everyone gets the value of performance appraisals.  Yet every client I’ve ever encountered usually bemoans the process and most employees criticize the appraisals.  Why is something that should have so much value end up being so belittled?

Organizations do lots of things wrong when it comes to reviews.  There is a tendency to spring the final evals on employees as a surprise.  I have lost count of the number of people who told me that they came out of their appraisal session in shock—having heard things they didn’t expect.  One basic rule of the formal appraisal is that nothing in that session should come as a surprise to the employee—it’s just a formal meeting to review and sign-off on informal coaching and counseling that went on earlier during the year.  Another issue is the tendency for managers to put off appraisals until the last possible moment.  There are lots of reasons this happens.  In some cases, it’s about avoiding unpleasantness or confrontation.  In others, it’s because it’s a hassle to do the appraisal paperwork and prepare for it—often because the criteria are so subjective.

Most appraisals tend to focus around either behavior or traits.  Look at the last performance appraisal you went through.  Were you evaluated on aspects like…..teamwork…creativity….leadership…communication skills…responsiveness?  While all of those behaviors or traits are nice and probably important, evaluating someone on them is usually an exercise on futility.  For one reason, what I consider to be creativity may not be what you consider to be creativity.  So setting a standard (even if the firm uses BARs:  Behaviorally Anchored Ratings Scales) is typically fuzzy.  For another, I can exhibit that behavior and still be ineffective as a performer.

Finally, it becomes incredibly difficult to limit what behaviors and traits you don’t want to evaluate.  Seriously now—does anyone really want an employee that doesn’t collaborate, communicate, write, speak, plan, and delegate well?  I’ve seen firms shoe-horn in attributes (“well, we said teamwork was important so we need to add it to the evaluation—let’s insert it in the space at the bottom of the form and give it 5 points!”).

A far more effective evaluation is to focus on accomplishments and goals.  At the beginning of the appraisal cycle, it makes sense for the employee and manager to sit down and discuss “what critical goals need to get done this year?” and how to measure those goals.  Those people who insist “I don’t have time to talk about appraisals during the year” don’t have an answer for this approach.  Because if a manager doesn’t have time to talk about what the goals are for the employee and what the objectives are, then they’re no good as a manager or the work situation is doomed to failure.

Focusing on goals and accomplishments also provides us a more measurable and objective standard.  How do you measure someone’s creativity?  It’s not impossible but it’s tough and it’s even harder to be fair about it (if the others in the department are also being judged on how creative they are).  But if we ask “why do we care if someone is creative?” it’s not because we admire people who put together interesting clothing ensembles for work or develop unique playlists for the in-house music system.  No, it’s usually because we want people to develop shorter ways to do the job or identify solutions that no-one else saw to particular problems.  I might be creative as a person (and generate great art in my spare time) but unless there is a payoff to the business, why give me higher points just for that capability?  Instead, if we evaluate employees creativity not on how creative they are but on the impact  of any solutions or quicker processes or new approaches that they developed—that’s a far more objective approach and much easier to measure.

Which gets us to the last point:  by focusing on accomplishments and goals, we’re focusing on what matters to the business.  Why reward an employee for a trait that has no payoff to the business?    Maybe I write proposals that are flowing and fun to read—they just never win any business from the client.  In which case, why rate me highly on writing skills (when another consultant writes less flowing, not as fun to read proposals but wins 40% of her submissions)?

We make life difficult for ourselves by insisting on evaluating people on behaviors or traits or capability rather than on actual performance impacts and accomplishments.  An appraisal that starts by establishing targets for the year (and of course those sometimes change during mid-year) and then assesses work on the basis of results and product is a far more objective, fairer and meaningful way of performance on the job.