When you manage others, it falls within your remit to assess their performance. Appraisals can be a tense time for everyone involved, so if you’re a conscientious manager, you’ll be concerned about ensuring they’re fair.
But before giving thought to the question of how to conduct a fair appraisal, it is wise for any manager or leader to first consider the concept of why they should conduct an appraisal in the first place.
Why conduct an appraisal
It may be that your organisation prescribes appraisals on an annual basis. It may also be that such a process is regulated and coordinated by a human resources function. If so, it may not be within your sphere of influence to shape much about the process (though you should still try if you deem it necessary for the greater good, and the fact that it is hard to change something doesn’t absolve you of responsibility). Even if you find yourself having little control over the appraisal procedure, you can still influence the spirit in which it takes place for both appraiser and appraise.
There are many possible intended outcomes for an appraisal (perhaps you call it ‘performance review’, ‘annual summary review’, or something else). So your first step is to think deeply about its purpose and intended outcome. Try to think of it as an influential conversation, intended to give constructive feedback as well as receive it through reverse mentoring. Use it to identify potential areas for improvement, and to plan how you will work together to make progress. That’s every bit as true for your ‘best’ performer as it is for your ‘worst’. Possibly even more so.
Think about it. Why would you want or need to give feedback to a team member? Chances are, it is for meaningful and important reasons. Perhaps to help them learn and grow, develop new understanding, or get a better, clearer view of expectations and performance, or to gain an understanding of why an aspect of their behaviour or performance might need to change.
The purpose is definitely not any of these:
- Because it’s September and that’s when we do appraisals
- Because I got an email from HR
- Because it’s connected to my bonus
- Because I’ll get asked about it in my appraisal next month
Nor is it (primarily) about these:
- A chance to tell Jim/Tony/Claire/Jane that they are underperforming
- A place to agree bonus targets for next year
- A chance for them to ask to go on courses
- The annual whinge session
If you are going to invest several person-hours in this process (and if you’re not, perhaps you shouldn’t bother to do it at all), then you should be looking for a return on time invested that makes it worthwhile and improves morale, motivation, engagement and performance.
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Conducting a fair appraisal
Now you’ve thought about the reasons behind conducting an appraisal, it’s time to make sure it’s fair. Here are some best practices for ensuring it is carried out in everyone’s best interests.
1. Don’t let an HR form dictate the structure of the appraisal
Both parties should prepare by considering strengths, areas for development, potential for improvement, next actions on the development journey, and significant aspects of past performance and achievement. While there might be specific topics you need to address from an HR perspective, don’t let it become a box-ticking exercise.
2. The appraisee and appraiser should contribute equally to the conversation
While it might be tempting to get it over with by saying everything you have to say in one go, it’s important to give someone the chance to reflect on and respond to what you say, as well as the opportunity to express their own thoughts. Appraisals are as much about what employees feel about their own performance and development as what their manager thinks, if not more.
3. Avoid vague conclusions, setting specific actions
Don’t allow appraisals to become an aimless chat. Of course, you should connect on a personal level where possible, and be aware of team members’ broader experiences, but the central objective must be to decide on real actions for the future. Everyone should be supported to develop and grow, no matter their current level of performance. Actions must themselves be reviewed at regular intervals, so that their impact can be monitored and evolved in line with changing objectives
4. Understand that if someone is underperforming, it’s partly about you
Yes, they may need to learn more or change their approach, but it isn’t just about them, so don’t feel you can shift the blame away from yourself. Think about the nature of the underperformance, understand the root causes, and make adjustments to your own approach to improve things.
5. This shouldn’t be just an annual dance
You need interim reviews and conversations, even if informal, to keep things progressing. As Sir John Harvey-Jones (former TV troubleshooter and Chair of ICI) used to say, ‘a lot of the job of a leader is just to keep jollying things along’. I agree. This isn’t a process, but an attitude to leadership. If you understand your place as a motivator, inspirer, coach and symbol of hope and vision, then you’ll understand why this matters. If you don’t, you need to stop and think.