I know I’m not the only person who has experienced dread before their work appraisal. I used to think I was, but once I started being open about my feelings I discovered very quickly that appraisal dread is a disturbingly wide-spread thing. The problem is that people don’t talk about it, it’s one of those taboo subjects and that silence is benefitting no-one, as it allows a negative practice to pervade the work place.
The most comforting part of discovering that I wasn’t alone was the realisation that I was in great company. Some of the people I admired most in my workplace also felt the dread. What could this mean? These people were amazing at their jobs, surely appraisal dread had to be reserved for useless losers? Twice a year, as my personality flaws were held up to the light in an attempt to make me a better employee, I felt like an epic loser.
In fairness my review was never totally negative. There would always be the acknowledgement that I was very good at my job and some lovely quotes from clients. But all those positives were shared as if they were a given and quickly washed away under a tsunami of criticism. And why was this? Because workplaces using the ubiquitous STOP, START, CONTINUE review system are automatically ensuring their staff appraisals are negatively geared. Which is screwed up, because anyone with a basic understanding of psychology (or who has watched Pretty Woman) knows that people believe criticism more than praise.
STOP, START, CONTINUE makes total rational sense if you’re looking to improve a robot, but it is far too negative to inspire great things from humans. The worst time to expect innovative thinking from me used to be in the weeks following my appraisal. I’d be too busy trying to extricate myself from the mud of self-doubt.
Don’t even get me started on the random nature of the people asked to provide feedback, the anonymity they’d get to hide behind (not sure if that’s a thing everywhere but universal in all the agencies I’ve worked at), or the unfiltered sharing of that feedback. Nothing breeds resentment against your colleagues faster.
Which gets to the crux of the question, what is the appraisal system for? I’m pretty sure the objective isn’t to traumatise employees and make them feel shit about themselves. I could be wrong, it won’t the first or last time, but assuming I’m right, surely the purpose of a good appraisal system is twofold:
- To ensure employees are delivering against their targets/job description, and if not flag ways they could improve
- To allow employees to share their career path ambitions and talk about constructive ways they can achieve them.
In order for this to be a useful session there should be no surprises. As a boss you should be providing on-going feedback to your team. Don’t wait 6 months to tell them about something they should change. The appraisal system is not an excuse for people managers to avoid awkward day-to-day conversations. The summing up of the past 6 months should be the starting point for a much more interesting and important conversation about the future.
People want to be excited about the future. After all they can’t do anything about the past, but the future still needs writing, and a smart employer should be looking to help them do that with maximum energy, excitement and commitment to their team and their job. So with a view to writing a better future, here are some first thoughts on how the appraisal system could work better:
- Have a pre-appraisal chat or email exchange about what the appraisee would like to focus on. This ensures the appraiser has time to plan and make the session as constructive and useful as possible. If, for example, the appraisee dreams of a future in a different department, does the boss know enough to provide useful guidance or do they need to confer with a more qualified colleague first?
- Focus on the strengths you can build on, not the weaknesses you think you need to fix.
- People are more interesting and varied than their job titles, allow for this. Don’t try to make them into duplicates of someone else. You don’t need a clone army.
- Be future focused. Past habits, successes and failures should only be the start point for the discussion. Context setting for a constructive conversation about the future.
- Discuss areas of struggle, but don’t get stuck there. Offer them guidance on how they could face these challenges more effectively. Is there a colleague that is particular strong in these areas? Could they mentor them? Training they could do?
- While the appraiser should collect feedback from colleagues on the appraisee they should share it judiciously. Ditch Stop, Start, Continue as a feedback template as people will aim to fill out each box, which can lead to some brain-achingly inane contributions. Instead ask them to provide feedback about how the appraisee delivers against a specific element of their job e.g. management skills or client relationship or strategic thinking or admin or team leadership etc.. Tailor these to the appraisee and ask colleagues/clients/suppliers who are qualified to respond regarding their competence in a particular area.
- Have clear next steps and timelines. This should not be a conversation that goes nowhere. There should be actions on both sides, with responsibility clearly allocated for the delivery of each action.
I admit the above doesn’t come in a catchy 3 box template and needs further development, but I’m hoping at least one person who reads this post will be in a position to make positive changes to the way their company runs appraisals. Hell, you may even work somewhere that has a brilliant way of doing them that inspires rather than demoralises their employees. If that is the case, please share it. You could liberate people from the tyranny of PAD (Pre Appraisal Dread) and PAR (Post Appraisal Rage).