Appraisals are the most commonly used, and probably the most commonly dreaded, performance management tool around. However, used properly, they can be an effective way of improving staff performance. Pam Henderson explains.
An appraisal or performance review is a planned meeting between a staff member and their line manager that involves a dialogue about the staff members performance, development and the support he or she might need from the line manager to do the job well. Most organisations use annual appraisals, with the remainder undertaking appraisals either twice a year or on a rolling programme.
Appraisals come in for a lot of stick. In a number of organisations people have told me that appraisals dont work; that they waste time; that they are just about ticking boxes; that they are really only opportunities for managers to rant; and that they have nothing to do with the jobs that are actually being done.
On further examination, I have found these criticisms to be entirely accurate, with the whole process fairly atrocious. If managers dont support the appraisal process, then staff will pick up on this belief and the managers view that appraisals are a waste of time will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the appraisal process is not developed in consultation with staff, then it is unlikely to have their support. Used as an opportunity to admonish, appraisals are unlikely to be a source of motivation, and if line managers do not have the authority to take up the ideas of their staff or respond to their needs then the appraisal process will, indeed, be spineless.
If it is so easy to get the whole appraisal process badly wrong, then perhaps it begs the question why bother? Basically, it is worth bothering because a well-managed appraisal process is the most effective way of managing the performance of people and, with a little time and thought, it is reasonably straightforward to get it right.
Appraisals provide an occasion to celebrate past successes, identify goals and exchange feedback. They are an opportunity to agree training needs and explore learning desires. Most importantly, they are another instance where the manager and team member can further strengthen their working relationship. All any manager is trying to do is to make people productive, and properly managed appraisals provide a great way to achieve this.
Try these five pointers to help you get an appraisal process that works.
If you are seeking to introduce or update your appraisal process then it makes sense to involve the people it will affect. It will help clarify your thinking, and you are more likely to get staff buy-in and avoid the itll never work syndrome described previously. You can get free templates of appraisals on the ACAS and businessballs websites listed below. ACAS also provides advice on how to involve union representatives.
Appraisals that happen in a vacuum are toothless. To give yours teeth, think about preparation and timing. In terms of preparation, both the appraiser and the appraisee will want to gather evidence to support feedback they may share in the meeting. In terms of timing, it is important to time appraisals so that they complement other things the organisation is doing to maximise the performance of staff. For example, if your organisation operates a pay reward scheme it makes sense for the cycle to be such that what comes out through the appraisal process has the possibility of feeding in to the pay review process.
The technical aspects of your appraisal process will probably be reasonably rigid: there may be a form for the appraiser and appraisee to complete in advance of the meeting; there will be a series of points to discuss at the meeting around past performance, planned goals, training and learning needs, and relationships; and there will be a completed form at the end to document action points, training and development, and agreed goals. However, where you need great fluidity is in the delivery. The appraiser needs to be empathic, with the ability to ask questions, actively listen and adopt positive body language. These interpersonal skills will allow the appraiser to respond to the person sitting next to them, rather than be wholly governed by a piece of paper.
When considering the training implications of introducing or improving your appraisal process, be aware of the enormous importance of interpersonal skills. While it is clearly important that participants understand the technical aspects of the process, it is the quality of their interpersonal skills, particularly those of the appraiser, that is largely going to determine the effectiveness of the appraisal meeting itself.
If managers and staff only talk face to face once a year at an appraisal meeting, then the appraisal process is probably doomed to failure because both will struggle to remember what was discussed at the appraisal 12 months ago, and both will feel uncomfortable sitting down together to talk. Replace this by making dialogue between managers and staff a permanent, and not an annual, feature in your organisation, and review performance on an on-going basis for example, with monthly meetings between the manager and staff member to chart progress.
Effective managers use appraisals to better understand what their staff need to work well. This is often about training and development, but can also be about systems and processes within the organisation. In order for everyone staff and managers to believe in the appraisal process it is vital that managers have the power to act on staff feedback. This is achieved through a culture that encourages team working, because it often involves multiple departments to change organisational processes, and the delegation of decision-making to those it affects most, as far as is practicable.
As I have said in previous columns, when people feel valued, involved, heard and in control then they are likely to be highly motivated and perform well. Essentially, the purpose of an appraisal process is to provide a mechanism that makes this more likely.
Pam Henderson is a Director of the Henderson Aplin Partnership. She works with managers in the cultural sector to help them get high performance from their staff.
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Fletcher, C. (2004) Appraisal and feedback: Making performance review work, 3rd ed. London Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development