Now that I'm head of department I have to start doing people's appraisals. I've never enjoyed being appraised and am not looking forward to having to do them. I'm also not convinced they're very useful.
'Appraisals are about continuous performance improvement. If your appraisal system doesn't achieve this, chuck it out.' These uncompromising but fair words come from Mary Budd, a management development specialist who has been involved in enhancing the outcome of appraisals for many years. Both of you are right: Budd in knowing appraisals can be an important lever in performance improvement, you in asserting that appraisals are often not very helpful, because they are frequently badly done.
Unfortunately, both the appraiser and the person on the receiving end tend to regard the process as an end-of-term report, backward-looking rather than forward-facing. If the appraisee has done well, there's a tendency to praise broadly (but not fulsomely, in case the result is a request for a pay rise) and give general encouragement to keep up the good work. If things have not gone well, there can be a negative atmosphere and criticism, but little in the way of objectives and specific targets for improvement.
And yet providing an employee's feedback is one of the few opportunities any manager has to help the individual to progress, and thereby the organisation too. Without feedback, how are we to know how we're doing? Too frequently we discover how much we're valued only when we leave the company. Poor performers who are made redundant often express extreme surprise: their boss never let them know they were failing to make the grade.
Though 360-degree feedback is becoming a norm, I sometimes feel that numerically based reports obscure what is really going on: if I have scored five out of 10 on several areas, should I be worried or happy? Where are the clues for how I could change my behaviour and score better? A well-known City bank reportedly has a system where dismissal is automatic if you score less than a certain number. What effect must this have on those who have to rate you? A fast breeder for blame culture, I would have thought.
It is understandable that large organisations favour numbers-based appraisals to provide consistency and comparability. My view is that it is worth adding a qualitative element, by asking raters to comment on their reasons for high or low scores. There's nothing like a genuine comment from a peer, manager or direct report (albeit anonymous) to add some reality to the process.
What can you do to make the appraisal meeting more useful, and more pleasant? For a start, you can use your empathy to understand how your appraisee is feeling. You disliked your own appraisals, so you know what it can be like. Now put yourself in the role of coach rather than judge, so the relationship is on an equal footing: you are there to encourage progress to peak performance.
Recognise that if the news is bad, the receiver may feel shock, even anger, and may question the accuracy of the feedback. Allow these feelings to be expressed before you remind the appraisee that, even if they don't feel the criticism is justified, this is the view of the rater and, since perception is to some extent reality, they will need to set about changing the perception. Feedback isn't 'the truth', it's a reflection of the relationship between the giver and receiver of it. Whether the feedback is negative or positive, it is important that the two parties emerge from the process with agreement as to what is going to happen as a result. I favour a simple, three-step model, which identifies what the appraisee should continue doing, stop doing, and start doing.
The sequence is important: starting with continue allows you to build on the things that the individual is already doing well and suggests that it's worth making an effort in the other areas. The stop should be very specific and can relate to negative behaviour ('shouting at your secretary') as well as the avoidance of positive behaviour ('feeling you have nothing to contribute at meetings'). The start element can be developmental: taking responsibility for people or projects, mastering some piece of software, and so on.
For each of the three there should be some measurable (or at least observable) target, by which you will both know whether the employee is achieving his or her performance goal.
I suggest you set a time period - for example, 90 days - after which you will both get together to review progress. After all, if the appraisee is still getting things wrong, or performing spectacularly well in some new area, 12 months is far too long a wait to know.