Winston Fletcher - On the way up: Sitting in judgment on others - Now it's your turn to conduct staff appraisals. If you've learnt from your own experience, you'll be well briefed, fair and constructive

Winston Fletcher - On the way up: Sitting in judgment on others - Now it's your turn to conduct staff appraisals. If you've learnt from your own experience, you'll be well briefed, fair and constructive - A management consultant once asked the American ad

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A management consultant once asked the American advertising tycoon Bob Jacoby - who built Ted Bates into the world's second-largest advertising agency and often toted a gun - whether or not he carried out formal appraisals with members of his board. 'Guys working for me know what I think of 'em,' cuddly Bob answered. 'If they don't, I make sure they soon stop working for me.'

On another occasion one of the directors grumbled that he wasn't enjoying his work at Bates. Said Jacoby: 'I don't pay you big money to enjoy yourself. You enjoy working here, you should be paying me money.'

Jacoby's sentiments used to be as common as paper-clips. Employees were paid, and they obeyed. If they didn't like it they could scram. Happily, things have changed. Most organisations now undertake regular staff appraisals, at which employees have the opportunity to discuss with their seniors their ambitions and hopes, their strengths and weaknesses, their achievements and their cock-ups. But it is worth remembering how new all this is, and why.

For a start, it isn't something many managers do naturally, of their own accord. They often find appraisals difficult to handle and have to be forced to carry them out. Appraisal systems have become widespread partly as a result of employee legislation, but more particularly because companies have learned that such assessments can work to their advantage.

Like many other aspects of free enterprise, appraisals are an excellent example of enlightened self-interest. By helping individuals to improve their performance the company may well improve its collective performance.

Yet despite their obvious benefits, appraisals often go wrong. Either the individual being appraised feels unjustly criticised, and in consequence demotivated. Or - almost as bad - the appraiser leans too far in the opposite direction and fails to communicate problem areas and scope for improvement.

To improve your skill as an appraiser, the best rule is to learn from your own experience. By the time you are called on to carry out appraisals you will probably have been through several of them yourself, at the receiving end. Think about them. Try to recall which were helpful, which were not, and analyse why. The likelihood is that you'll come up with the following guidelines, which should be the keystones of your own appraisal procedure.

First, the person appraising you was thoroughly briefed. Before meeting you they had checked your job specification, previous appraisal reports and achievements, long-term and recent. If they relied on their memory they probably got things wrong, and you wasted lots of time debating exactly what had happened and when. That is a path you won't want to follow.

Second, they opened the proceedings by giving you a chance to express your own views about the way things had been going. They listened, took notes, and in due course responded to points you raised. They did not keep looking at their watch or cut you short. Many people do, and it's offensive.

Third, they responded with their own points, including comments collected from others in the organisation. Today, everyone understands appraisals, and that such investigations are not underhand - nor are they opportunities for indiscriminate stab-in-the-back attacks. Indeed, managers who regularly knife their colleagues at appraisal time soon get known for what they are: people whose opinions aren't worth the cyberspace files they occupy.

Then, and only then, did the good appraisers engage in a frank, free and fair discussion of both your views and their own. This is naturally the trickiest part of any appraisal meeting - the part where tempers can flare, where people can say things they don't mean, and long-term harm can easily ensue.

You may yourself, on occasion, have responded a little too fiercely to a critical assessment. You must be ready for others to react similarly, and take it in your stride. Few of us take criticism well. People being censured are bound to feel some of it is unfair. If they defend themselves passionately that is no bad thing. As long as they do not lose their rag.

As the appraiser, you are in charge. It is your responsibility to ensure that even people with blistering tempers keep them in check. If the appraisal ends in a row, it is your fault.

Finally, looking back, you will remember that the interview was part of a continuing process, not something forgotten as soon as it was over.

Long before the time for your next formal interview, your appraiser will have followed it up with friendly questions, from time to time, making it clear your appraisal was a serious matter. Now it is your turn to do the same.

If you get things right, the people you appraise will be grateful to you for helping them improve their performance and - to return to where we started - with any luck the company will also be grateful to you for helping to improve its performance. Well, there's no harm in dreaming.

Winston Fletcher is FCB Europe's communications director.

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