Appraisal Dread

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:

  1. To ensure employees are delivering against their targets/job description, and if not flag ways they could improve
  2. 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).





One thought on “Appraisal Dread

  1. Here is some interesting follow up from Christopher Markiewicz, trainer and coach (

    Great stuff Stephanie. I feel prompted to add a few further thoughts, based on the work I do.

    1. I’m not so keen on the term “appraisal”. It has that “one way” feel which prompts the thought “I’m going to be appraised by my manager”, thus adding to the fear. Personally, I prefer the word “review”.

    2. Ensure it be a two way process – an opportunity to review the manager’s and the organisation’s performance as well as that of the job holder. Under performance isn’t usually a problem. Rather, it will be a symptom. To what extent might the manager and/or organisation be creating or contributing to someone’s under performance? For example, if a manager doesn’t communicate and engage on a regular basis (see next point below) , such symptoms are more likely to bubble up. A fellow trainer quotes a former manager of his who used to say “When managing others, use a mirror not a microscope”

    3. Far more important than annual or bi-annual appraisals are regular performance discussions. An opportunity, ideally once a month, to sit down and review performance against objectives. This is particularly important now, given the pace of change in the present day workplace and, indeed the world out there (Brexit, Trump etc). An objective set one month can become redundant the next! Also, such regular reviews feed into the “no surprises” element you mention, of a good review meeting. Any issues re nipped in the bud. “How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans” (John Cleese)

    4. A famous apocryphal story tells of a senior politician’s visit to NASA back in the 60’s. Strolling down a corridor, along with his hosts and a posse of aides, he stopped to chat with an employee. This man was standing in the corridor, wearing overalls and with a mop and bucket beside him. “What’s your role here at NASA?” asked dignitary. The reply: “I’m helping put a man on the moon”. The story highlights that, as well as being clear on WHAT needs doing (the task) and HOW to do it (the competencies, behaviours, attitudes), it’s also vital to be clear on the WHY (the bigger picture). Thus, every employee will feel motivated to do a great job, rather than forced, manipulated or scored high or low as a blunt instrument of motivation. We all like to contribute. But, won’t feel we are if not clear on the WHY.

    5. Not everyone is ambitious. There is a scene in Jane Eyre I vaguely recall where a character is told “you are not ambitious, but you are passionate” (or words to that effect). Too few managers recognise this difference, assuming that only those who wish to progress up the ranks are worth nurturing or rewarding. Just because a manager may be ambitious, it would be misguided to assume others are or, indeed should be!
    6. Ensure that day to day contact and keep an eye on your emotional bank account. Every time, as a manager, you give positive feedback or positive “strokes” ( Thank you’s etc), they count as deposits. Every time you criticise or give negative feedback, you are making a withdrawal. The more you share the positives,, the healthier the bank balance! In the words of Ken Blanchard “Catch people doing things right”

    7. Most managers desperately need training around managing performance. All too often they become managers and are left to get on with it and manage those weird things called people. They’ll default to task based activities, ignoring their peoples’ development needs and then, at annual review time, feel like running for the hills! It’s not just the job holders who feel trepidation or fear at “that” time of year! Ever had your “appraisal” postponed by your manager? Symptom!

    8. I run a very powerful one day course on this topic which goes down extremely well with groups of managers! If you know of anyone who may benefit then, here I am! (Blatant self promotion!)

    I’m certain these elements, along with the points you make in your blog post contribute significantly to reducing the fear factor and resistance felt on the part of BOTH the manager and the employee . I think that, betrwen us Steph, we may have just about cracked this one!

    Liked by 1 person

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