Best. Appraisal. Ever.

Odd title for a post eh? And not one you’d think would be that awfully exciting either. I’m certainly not promising to make it exciting, but hopefully interesting. It’s one of the biggest bugbears of all involved in HR/L&D. And let’s put aside the debate for now of the future of appraisals and if there are better ways to conduct them. As it is, we’re stuck with them in the main. The biggest issue we’ve always had is how to make them less unnecessarily time intensive.

The best end of year review I ever had lasted 45 mins.

I’ll come back to that a bit later.

So far I’ve been lucky to work in organisations where there aren’t really that many barriers to making appraisals a useful part of a person’s development. I’ve experienced everything from annual reviews to quarterly reviews, and known there to be 4 hour reviews and one’s as short as mine above. Some can turn quite heated and emotional, others can be non-descript, and some can be seen as a waste of time. And through all that, there’s only really one thing I consider – that the line manager has not taken the time on a regular basis to give regular informal (and sometimes formal) feedback to their direct report which helps them to continually develop.

It’s the hardest thing for a manager to do, but an absolutely vital part of their work. Direct reports need to know if they’re doing a good job, and the main person they’re going to hear that from is the line manager.

One of things I’ve not really considered is that there are going to be organisations where taking the time to do this regularly and consistently with all your people is just practically difficult. The demands of the day job for organisations such as the NHS, police service and fire service are such that the people development side of work just gets pushed to the bottom of the pile. Yes, people can and do attend the appropriate training courses to help give them the skills to review their people, but what it fails to take into account is the practicality of doing so. And in truth, this training is woefully lacking – not the delivery, but the breadth of the content.

So here’s something to throw in the mix. We’re not giving enough attention or efforts to actually equipping line managers to do reviews amazingly well.

How about instead of sending line managers on simple appraisal training, we made the learning and development they go through so robust, line managers would not only feel more confident about holding regular reviews, but they would fundamentally change their perception of what people development is all about.

Here’s what I’m thinking. As L&Ders, we know plenty of ways to enable managers and leaders to be great, but – AND THIS IS A BIG BUT – we hold this for the reserve of those on leadership and management programmes. We don’t, in principle, tend to think of appraisal training – or performance management training, as being anything other than mandatory training for line managers. And as such, we keep it simple, and basic.

All it needs is to re-think the skills we provide managers in respect to this. How about if they learned what Situational Leadership could do for them. That they don’t need to take large chunks out of their day, but deal with things as they arise. That they could follow up with informal notes and emails that check in with progress. That they could mentally chart the development of each person based on day to day interactions instead of an annual meeting and feedback which is third party information.

How about if we taught them how to give feedback which is meaningful and direct. I’ve long let go of the concept of the ‘praise sandwich’. We’re adults for crying out loud. If we’re doing something right or wrong, and there is evidence to support it, give it to us straight down the line. How we deal with that feedback is up to us, but there’s nothing better than knowing where you stand.

How about if we taught what Diversity truly means amongst team members and encouraged not just toleration of others’ differences but downright praise and proper conversation about things that matter to team members. Much, and many, complaints and grievances in the workplace come down to a lack of understanding of someone else’s perspective, because we’ve not encouraged the permission to have those discussions without causing offence. I only know a handful of people who can have this conversation well, and I love those people.

How about if we took the time to actually provide training on business development and commercial acumen skills to all line managers, instead of competency frameworks and balanced scorecards? Then we’re helping to give everyone the knowledge and skills to move the business forward. Line managers can and should be enabling that in their direct reports, now leaving it up to the Execs – who are only just acting according to what they think is right anyway.

How about if we taught line managers how to spot positive behaviours so that they could actively encourage those amongst individuals and team members. Praise is infectious, both receiving it and giving it. If you hear someone in your team has done a good job, you’ll start to act in ways which bring about the same response. If you spot a team member doing something encouraging and positive, you’re likely to spot others in the team doing the same.

I’m sure there are better ways of giving line managers the confidence and skills to be able to make appraisals meaningful when they need to happen.

The best end of year review I ever had lasted 45 mins. This is because there were no surprises in what we talked about, we agreed on all the important points, and had nothing contentious to be challenged.

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

>Why aren’t we all highly effective then?

>I’m revising a course I’m due to deliver next week called ‘Making a Personal Impact’. It’s aimed at juniors in the workforce to give them more understanding about how to make a better impression and impact so that they get noticed and become able to move up the corporate ladder. As part of the course I’m doing a piece on what it means to be pro-active and as I was searching the interwebs, I was directed to Stephen Covey’s website http://www.stephencovey.com. He’s the author of the best selling book ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’. The book was first published in 1989, has sold over 20 million copies, and has been named the #1 Most Influential Business Book of the Twentieth Century” according to his website.


Let’s fast forward to the here and now. A lot of authors have written about and blog regularly about how to be effective and the latest ten rules for doing so. I take issue with the continuous rise of such things, least of all because they tend not to be evidence based, more anecdotal, and this means there’s no real fix. The better works try to be scientific in their approach but still fall foul of not following an effective or repeatable process. Anyway that’s not what I’m blogging about.
My question today is around why we’re all not conforming to the multitude of theories in existence that tell us how to be successful and/or effective. Well the answer is pretty simple really. The companies and organisations we work in just don’t support these theories. Business 101 tells us that companies are in existence to make money. In order for that to happen, those same businesses look for the kind of people who are willing to put in the time and effort to make things happen. That’s a broad brush comment which is meant to include all manner of behaviours such as selling, collaborating, seeking new business, delivering on time, etc.
Part of that demand for success means sometimes those businesses have to overlook the desirable qualities that are oft quoted as being the corner mark of an effective person. Do you want a CEO who is able to make hard decisions, communicate them out and keep a business surviving, or a CEO who spends time ensuring staff are being cared for, relationships are well maintained, and may miss opportunities to sustain business success? I’m trying to present extremes on purpose.
The problem is the habits of highly effective people are often in conjunction with other behaviours that aren’t quoted or discussed. Some of these highly effective people are task masters. Some are sticklers for discipline. Some are really picky about details. Some just care about big ideas and big promotions. Some just railroad others into accepting their way of thinking. These are all traits which many executives possess but no-one really takes the time to recognise.
One psychometric tool I’ve come across does attempt to redress this. It’s called the Hogan Dark Side and is developed by Psychological Consultancy Ltd. It’s a good tool which encourages seniors to look at what may ‘derail’ them. What this means is, you may have a trait, e.g. gregarious and energetic, and this may be a great strength of yours. There may be circumstances you encounter which inhibit this strength continuously and make this person derail by forcing them to behave in ways that are uncharacteristic and damaging. For example, they start to go out for drinks far too often, during lunch and then after work, they spend too much time talking to colleagues and socialising rather than doing work, they try to get involved in company social events and miss meetings and deadlines.
But that’s just one tool and it’s not used widely enough to be recognised by the wider working world. My concern is that people go out and buy self-help books on personal success and how to be the next millionaire but they’re not being told the full story of what list of traits are not talked about.
To further this line of thinking, I’m going to make a rather bold statement. We wouldn’t have experienced the financial crisis across the world if all those workers in the banking industries truly exhibited the qualities of highly effective individuals, being genuine and not looking for personal financial gain. Instead, those industries promote and expect behaviours along the lines of: look out for yourself, get a big bonus, don’t collaborate, keep information close at hand, amongst others.
So where does this take us? If a company wants its staff to truly be displaying the qualities that seem to be in high demand, it needs to be explicit about that in a variety of different forms. The company should have a set of values that are clear and understandable by all. There needs to be a behavioural competency framework that outlines what’s expected of everyone in a very practical way. There has to be a clear and unbiased promotion process, succession plan and skills matrix. Review periods have to be mandatory and the opportunities for learning and development made available to every member of staff.
I’m not saying all companies are bad at doing this. If anything the Great Place to Work Survey by the FT shows us clearly that there are a lot of companies striving to get it right and perception from their staff show this to be the case. What I am saying is this needs to be built into every company so that we can have the kind of effective business and quality of workforce that we seem to be looking for.

>’Tis the season to do your appraisals

>Oh it’s that time of year. Collate feedback. Backtrack over the past year’s performance. Have meeting. Set objectives. Give rating. Salary review. Carry on and keep calm.

Appraisals are oft quoted as being the hardest task for managers. Why? Because managers are responsible for all those things above. And it’s hard work. Sure it comes with the responsibility, but it doesn’t make it easy. Especially if you have a big team to deal with. It’s no less a challenge for managers with small teams though. Either way it’s a burden. A necessary burden. A necessary evil. Actually, no. Check that. An essential necessity.

Carrying out appraisals are the most effective way of ensuring your team members are on track to help them achieve their personal goals, objectives, business goals and success. Even if you see your team member once a year, that will be the single most important meeting between a manager and your direct report.

Tom Peters talks about making arduous tasks into ‘WOW! Projects’. The essence of which says make an appraisal a meeting about excellence, creating a wider team of experts, setting amazing objectives and giving inspirational feedback. Yes, very American. But an interesting premise from which to work. My take on this? An appraisal should be a meaningful experience for all involved.

How can you make it meaningful? Well simple things like preparing in advance. Letting the team know meetings are upcoming. Ensure everyone is aware of what’s expected in the meeting. Have all paperwork completed before the meeting. Set uninterruptable time aside. Spend time listening to your direct reports thoughts about their performance. There’s more, much more, but it’s about committing to the process. Not because it’s a call from HR or the Exec team. But because it means so much to the success of a business.

Research (Corporate Leadership Council, Gallup) has shown that the discretionary effort from employees increases dependent on how well they are engaged by the organisation and their line managers. What is discretionary effort? The amount of effort an employee chooses to exercise based on how well they perceive they are being treated.

Employee engagement is a whole topic unto itself. But if a manager doesn’t commit to the appraisal process then you can wave goodbye to your staff. I will guarantee that with regards to appraisals, the following contribute to making it a poor process:
– last minute notification of meeting (i.e. tomorrow or even worse, this afternoon)
– poor solicited feedback
– poorly set and worded objectives
– badly delivered feedback
– lack of consideration of coaching opportunity
– judgements based on impressions rather than evidence based

Yet I’m amazed how many managers will use the excuse “but those things will happen because I have no time”. Nonsence. That’s a poor excuse to say “I’m not committed to the process and care little for the development of my staff”.

I’ve seen some great managers who don’t dismiss the importance of a good appraisal. Unfortunately they’re few and far between. Also they’re not shouted about enough to show what a great example looks like. Particulary though, it also falls on either HR or the Exec team to raise the profile of appraisals in a meaningful way.

‘Tis definitely the season to wind down and recharge those batteries. ‘Tis also the season to show your staff that you’re serious about their development.