The Performance Appraisal Paradox

Duncan Brand

There must be a better way…

As performance appraisal time looms for many organizations there is noticeable tension in the corporate air from both employees and managers alike. Quick, put your hand up in the air if you love or even like conducting a performance appraisal! For most managers it’s a once a year activity that has them scrambling around writing the appraisal and then figuring out how to broach the dreaded subject of improvement—the kudos part of the appraisal process is easy, we can all do that, but the hard and skilled part comes in delivering news the employee doesn’t want to hear. For the employee who is on the receiving end of the appraisal it’s not much better; it goes something like this: “you’ve done a great job this year! However…” and then the not so good news is delivered.

The real problem is the entire idea of performance management is approached so inefficiently! The first real question to ask is why are we giving the employee a performance appraisal? What is the point? In reality we want performance to improve which implies we want to promote great development plans but we also want employees to keep on doing the things they do well—with the traditional approach of bundling good and bad news together, we send the employee a mixed message, which is confusing. The appraisal could be 90% positive or even 95% positive and the employee will still walk away with the negative 5-10% ringing in their ears. But there is a better way, and I use this method personally and it is very effective:

Two Meetings vs. One

Set up two meetings with your employees (yes two! most people won’t do this because it takes too much time, but it’s worth it). Send your employee an email and ask them for their top 3-5 accomplishments for the year. Also, ask them for 2-3 areas of development they would like to work on next year.

Accentuate the Positive – Celebrate

In the first meeting, explain that you just want to focus on things that went well for the year and you will schedule another meeting to talk about their development for next year. Use this opportunity to really celebrate what they felt went well during the year—get them to talk about things they enjoy doing, things that challenge them; also, ask how you as their manager can help. Do not talk about anything to work on for next year! At the end of the meeting, if you have done a great job of this part, your employee will leave your office feeling really good about themselves. Now, how receptive do you think they will be to the development discussion?

Development Discussion

Set the next meeting up maybe 2 weeks from the first one. Ahead of time you can discern whether your developmental ideas are in alignment and how you can best support them by reviewing the areas of development they feel they have versus what you feel they may need. The dialog is then either about the gap between how you see thing and they see things, or if you are in alignment, plotting the development for the year.

Although I have outlined the steps above for a more positive appraisal experience, there are a few more things to think about in terms of best practices around employee performance. Here are a few listed:

  1. View performance as a daily occurrence and build it into your daily routine. Set up one-on-one’s with your employees well in advance and fiercely protect that time. Too often 1-1 time is sacrificed too readily and it sends a message that our employees are not our first priority. If it is important to you, it will be important to them. You should meet with employees minimally once a quarter.
  2. Work on building trust by being authentic and giving honest and timely feedback throughout the year. Don’t sandbag corrective issues with employees until appraisal time. Instead, address them in the moment and relate them later to developmental opportunities.Embrace coaching as the best management tool you can add to your toolkit. This is a skill that you can never stop learning and the real beauty of it is you can use it every day. Great managers learn how to coach for behavioral and performance issues in addition to life and career coaching—two relatively new aspects of coaching, but often a reflection of changing times.
  3. Don’t get too caught up with the appraisal form. There is no substitute for a good dialog about your employee’s performance, career aspirations or challenges they face at work. Don’t let the form drive your conversation; architect a positive outcome by talking about what went well during the year, and do it with enthusiasm and passion—it’s infectious!

If you embrace the appraisal process as the natural outcome of your year’s efforts in coaching, guiding, and supporting your employees it can actually become an enjoyable experience. Moreover, your employees will view it as a positive experience and that can reap untold dividends in terms of engagement, retention, and discretionary effort.

Duncan Brand is the Director of Talent & Organizational Development at Aerojet, where he creates and implements organizational development techniques and programs to improve effective leadership skills, increase employee retention rates, and solve manager-employee problems. He has extensive experience in application of OD methodologies and has worked as a master facilitator and workshop presenter as well. Previously, Duncan worked as a Senior Talent & Organizational Effectiveness Consultant at the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco, where he was the recipient of a Legacy Award for leadership.

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