The Annual Appraisal is the Undead

There are so many articles and opinion pieces being written about the "death" of the annual appraisal that it's caused me to wonder if it was ever really alive to begin with. I mean, what is a "live" process? Surely it's one that people and organisations are committed to, see value in, and deploy with passion and vigour. Has that ever been true of that ultimate HR stereotype - the "annual appraisal"?

It seems that it's stalked organisational life for many years now like a zombie process, never quite alive. How could anything survive that is only brought into the open once a year, to be dealt with by participants who are unprepared, unskilled, and anticipating the experience with dread or fear? It's just that we're now in an era where people are really keen to pronounce it's finally dead. Interesting also that the term "appraisal" which actually means "to estimate value" has such negative associations in organisational life, while still in many organisations "performance management" is the euphemism for planning to exit someone.

However, I have to admit that I look on these debates with mixed feelings. I can't help wondering - when HR and OD specialists say they're not doing performance management anymore - what that means is they find it too hard to actually make it work.

The reality is that sending out a form once a year (yes, some organisations still do that) and expecting that to have an impact is delusional. If you want high quality performance conversations to happen, it takes guts, a huge amount of hard work, preparation, expertise and strong process. When you get it right, you find that the hard work was worth it and you end up with enlightened managers, engaged employees, evidence based decision making about workforce planning and talent management and so much more. If you're in HR and too busy to make performance management work well, what are you spending your time on?

So what are some of the secrets, apart from hard work?

  1. Process - design a process that involves several conversations a year which each have a clear purpose
  2. Technology. Really, don't use paper. If you have an intranet you'd be surprised what you can do with the technology you already have. It needn't cost much.
  3. Learning - train, support and encourage leaders and team members - keep doing it. Repeat.
  4. Ratings - use ratings that indicate action and don't label people. Differentiate between good and great and don't obsess about negatives. Also remember that no one wants to be average.
  5. Conversations - there's a lot of talk about "having difficult conversations". Really? That just builds a ghetto of negativity around discussing performance. Are leaders good at having mildly uncomfortable ones, or even positive ones? Leaders need to learn to have good conversations using a wide range of styles to suit all situations. Sometimes the best performers need the most challenge.
  6. Feedback - make it about providing two way feedback. That doesn't just happen. Work hard to win trust, make it OK for people to give feedback and leaders to listen. Giving the organisation an accessible language to engage in this makes it a lot easier.
  7. Time. It takes time. Get used to it, make sure people understand that, stick to the aim. Building a performance culture can be the work of years, depending on the circumstances of the organisation.

A colleague from another department approached me at my desk last week. She said she'd just had her year-end review with her manager and she really enjoyed it. I could also see that a director had been receiving clear feedback from his team, which I mentioned to him. "Yeah", he said, "it's been really good, although it's not always been what I wanted to hear"..
'Nuff said.

Written by - Wayne Gwilym | Head of Organisation Development at NPT Homes

Wayne is a specialist in improving performance culture in organisations.

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Date - 18/05/2017