Reappraising Appraisals

When Brad was called into a meeting with his crew leader, he was curious, but not concerned. He had been working at the company for four years, and had always received satisfactory, albeit generally perfunctory, performance reviews. But when he walked into the office and saw the general manager, he had a sinking feeling that he was not there to receive a new assignment.

In less than five minutes, Brad's world changed dramatically as he was told that he was being terminated. Too stunned to ask questions at the time, only later did Brad feel rising anger at the unexpected and brief discussion. And his frustration only increased as he thought about his past annual performance reviews. Had he missed something. Can it be that he really never saw this coming?

Sadly, the answer for Brad — and many others who find themselves unexpectedly terminated — is that these events too often do come without warning. The reasons can be found in the fundamental fear that most managers have of providing negative feedback. The process of properly addressing an employee's work performance is so fraught with discomfort that it rarely gets the time and attention it warrants.

It is one of life's truisms that activities that must be tended to on an annual basis are generally considered to be dreary chores done reluctantly and of necessity. Think annual check-up, automobile maintenance and spring cleaning. If you are a supervisor or someone who is supervised — and it's hard to imagine someone who does not fall into one of those categories — think performance appraisal.

No matter how seasoned the manager or how talented the managed, most annual reviews are dreaded events. And when finally implemented (frequently, several months late), they can be awkward in tone and inadequate in detail.

The fact is, face-to-face discussions about someone's strengths and weaknesses are difficult. The positive messages delivered are frequently too brief to seem validating, and few managers are skilled at properly conveying negative feedback so it can truly be heard and understood. The result is a performance appraisal where the evaluator gets to check something off the to-do list, and the person evaluated leaves the interaction puzzled, angry or frustrated, rather than with a clear understanding of job strengths and weaknesses.

If this sounds at all like the process in your organization, it may be time to think differently about performance appraisals. While rethinking, consider a total overhaul that is likely to result in improved morale and better performance. Implementing the following three tips can help you create a much more meaningful process.

1. Consider feedback as part of everyday conversation, rather than an annual discussion. Like the way a situation was handled? Offer praise and an analysis of what factors contributed to the success. Observe a poorly managed interaction? Immediately suggest some helpful ideas for improved ways to manage a similar situation in the future. And even better, do it in person, instead of by e-mail.

2. Don't hide behind technology to communicate with your personnel. The irony of today's workplace is that, even as there are more ways than ever to communicate, there are fewer meaningful conversations taking place. Technology has replaced direct discussion, which results in an even more awkward formal review.

3. Try to avoid formal performance reviews where the feedback will be unexpected. Information conveyed during a review process should never be a surprise. Behavior cannot be meaningfully modified through a conversation that only takes place annually. Most people want to perform well and succeed. It is the manager's job to make sure employees understand what they need to do to improve performance on an ongoing basis.

The bottom line. Performance appraisals could be far more effective tools for improving behavior if they are integrated into an ongoing culture of communication. Let your workplace be one where regular feedback becomes part of a culture of success.

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