The science of… Appraisals

Look. I had to get to this one eventually. I’ve been pushing it aside long enough. It was us ok? It was occupational psychologists that said: You need to set SMART objectives, you need to do annual appraisals, you need competency frameworks, you need to give effective feedback. IT WAS ALL US. There. I’ve said it. Now, here’s the science…

It’s nothing you don’t know already. You want to recognise and reward performance but how can you do it unless you appraise your staff? It’s a win-win argument. I can review the objectives I’ve set you, review your projects, review your behaviour and appraise how well you’ve done. Then – and only then, can I decide on what level of salary increase you are likely to deserve. The logic is flawless.

The appraisal provides an opportune moment to provide feedback, develop your staff, give some coaching and all in one neat package. HOW COULD THIS FAIL?

Because of complete, total and utter misunderstanding of the truth behind appraisals. An appraisal should only ever be a summary of every conversation you have ever had with your direct report. The annual review was meant to be the one point of the year where you formally sit down and do the review of the collection of your reviews you’ve already been doing.

And that’s where it all started to go horribly wrong. Everyone knows about the initiatives for continuous improvement that came and went. Total Quality Management, Management By Objectives, Competency Frameworks, Coaching. These are all excellent models. The one and only reason they are looked on with such hatred is the piss poor education about how they should be implemented and used.

The best – truly – appraisal I had was a 45 minutes discussion with my first manager in my 3rd year of working for him. He understood what he was meant to do over the course of the year. We had regular catch ups, he regularly reviewed my work, I regularly received feedback, he would give me coaching when I clearly needed it, and he recognised my work. The annual review was then a formal point to sit down and say “Well, what do you want to do next year?”.

The reason appraisals are given a bad name is because the process is not understood, respective parties aren’t sure what they’re meant to be doing, no follow up is taken, and the review ends up being a 3 hour meeting producing a 15 page review document. I am not exaggerating on any of those things I’ve mentioned. I have experienced all and am shocked by all.

So, where’s the science? It’s in the application of the process. It doesn’t really matter what document you have, what framework or model you adhere to. The important piece comes from understanding the process and engaging with it fully. Seek out training, understand the process, ask questions, find out what’s expected – fully engage yourself with the process. It will make for a much more valid and reliable appraisal process. And that will sing to the heart of every occupational psychologist who came before me, and will sing to every one of your staff who you involve in this truly developmental process.

Posts in this series:

The science of… Assessment Centres
The science of… Psychometrics
The science of… Competency Frameworks
The science of… Ergonomics
The science of… Learning and Development
The science of… Occupational Psychology


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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