• Five things HR gets wrong with appraisals

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  • 5 Apr 2013
  • Comments 11 comments

Avoid these pitfalls to increase the value of your staff reviews


Do you fall into the trap of repeating some of the most common
mistakes in appraisals? Now you have no excuse. PM looks at the common
areas HR fails in – and how to avoid them in the first place

No-one comes out of them any-the wiser

“Managers dislike doing them, feeling they lack the skills to
adequately raise difficult performance issues, while employees feel
disempowered to actually say what they want to get off their chest,”
says Dennis Nickson, head of Strathclyde Business School’s Department
of HR Management.

“It all adds to a mindset where there is
a pre-disposition not to arrive at anything meaningful, and produce
middle-ground results.” The solution, he says, is for performance to
be promoted far more as a fact of organisational life. “The appraisal
needs integrating with broader performance management systems, so that
the awkwardness is taken out, and issues are talked about
dispassionately,” he says. “Time must also be set aside to allow staff
to talk about their own issues.”

Too much focus on the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’

Appraisals can focus too much on the extent to which someone has met
pre-designated objectives, without thinking about the skills,
abilities and attributes they want from their staff. 

Sarah Daynes, an HR consultant and trainer in the not-for-profit sector, explains: “This
often gives a skewed perception of performance - like the sales person
who meets all their sales targets but manages to miss deadlines,
disrupts the team, or is consistently late for work.” She says
appraisals should encompass a mix of “both objectives – what people
have done; and competency areas – how they have done it.” 

Danial Morris, manager at 360 review consultancy IBP, adds: “If you set
hard performance targets, people will act like imbeciles to reach
them. Set behaviours right however and targets will naturally flow
from this.”

Employees feel disengaged – it’s too much ‘them and us’

“At their worst, appraisals can end up being less about staff and
their work, and more about personalities of bosses flexing their
managerial muscles,” says Susy Roberts, director at people development
consultancy Hunter Roberts. Even if their performance has been
indifferent, she argues staff really need to leave review meetings
with new impetus: they know what they need to do, and what good
performance looks like.

She says: “This means managers need to have a
good understanding of what their staff actually do. Some companies ask
their people to prepare and take along examples of work which
demonstrates their contribution. This is a good exercise as it helps
prevent the appraisal being carried out at the level of
generalisations.”

Objectives aren’t clearly defined

“It amazes me how often employers have no outcomes from appraisals,”
says Tom Doherty, general manager at HR Dept Ltd. “If you take the time
to sit down with someone, you need actions. Employees need guidance
and direction from above, and actions always speak louder than words.

Out of every appraisal should come three top actions that must be
completed and performance can be measured against the delivery of these.” To
do this, Daynes says managers must avoid using ambiguous assessment
terms. She says: “One person's 'good' can be another person's
'excellent' and someone else's 'satisfactory', which can lead to
disagreements. It’s far better to set clear expectations or
requirements and then use objectives terms related to those - such as
'below expectations', 'meets', 'exceeds', 'consistently exceeds' etc.”

There’s never any praise

The once-a-year format, focusing on performance, means one simple
engagement device – praise – is often forgotten, argues Pam Jones,
director of Ashridge Business School's Performance through People
programme and author of Managing for Performance.

“Focus on weaknesses and areas for improvement is still necessary”, she says, “but it is
just as important to think about how staff can build on their
strengths  and identify how they can continue to develop in the
future.” She adds: “Look at what the individual does well and think
how you can use their skills and strengths to enhance the team. This
is likely to raise their confidence, increase motivation and develop
the performance of the team as whole.”

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Comments (11)
  • I'm pleased to be quoted in this article, but just to point out, it has my name wrong - it is Tara Daynes, not Sarah Daynes, thanks!

  • Agreed, the 5 things listed here are some of the issues many organisations have with appraisals but I don't really consider them as things that HR gets wrong.

    Surely if no one comes out any the wiser this is because the manager didn't approach the conversation effectively?

    'Too much focus on the what and not the how' is again a manager interpretation of what they should be doing in the appraisal discussion, not exactly something HR should be "controlling".  Agreed we should be coaching managers to consider both the what (objectives) and the how (behaviours) but the implementation of this is down to the 1-1 discussion between manager and employee, not something for HR.

    Likewise if appraisal is "them and us" HR needs to work with managers to improve their understanding of what performance management is meant to achieve and ensure they have the skills and confidence to rebalance their discussions. The focus of the appraisal should be on the quality of the conversation between the manager and employee not the "HR process" itself. A performance management culture is created by a good application of the appraisal process, not the appraisal process itself.

    I agree that managers often fail to clearly define objectives and often forget to give praise where praise is due.  But once again I don't see this as something HR gets wrong with appraisals.  These are clearly issues managers need to take ownership of and put some effort in to getting it right.

    Don't get me wrong, I agree that the 5 issues mentioned are things organisations often get wrong when implementing appraisals; I just see them as things managers are getting wrong not HR.  So I have an alternative 5 things that I consider HR gets wrong with appraisals which I think it is more helpful for us to focus on:

    1. HR usually over complicates the appraisal process, making it too bureaucratic and time consuming.

    2. HR often fails to make clear what managers are expected to do and how.

    3. HR doesn't make enough effort to demonstrate how the time invested in appraisals, or more importantly, performance management generally, will pay off.

    4. HR tends to take it for granted that managers have (or should have) the right skills and behaviours to carry out appraisals effectively, when what it should be doing is coaching and supporting managers to get it right.

    5. HR doesn't usually do anything meaningful with the information captured during the appraisal process.

    Appraisal processes are not all bad, they can add value as part of a good performance management strategy, but HR needs to make sure they are not set up to fail by overlooking these 5 important areas.

  • I think what is wrong with appraisals is the idea of the appraisal itself. I agree with Peter: why wait 12 months to give feedback? If managers are doing their job as they are suppose to do, then the appraisal becomes redundant. I have a new book out in the UK in September entitled: "The End of the Performance Review" (Palgrave Macmillan). In it I detail a new approach I refer to as The 5 Conversations' Framework.

  • Performance review time usually means setting SMART objectives. One of the intended purposes of goal setting is to motivate.

    Dan Pink’s animated talk on motivation – http://www.thersa.org/events/rsaanimate/animate/rsa-animate-drive – says that motivation happens because of three factors: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

    I was thinking about how we could use this so people can take pride in what they do, find joy in work, and allow for intrinsic motivation. Perhaps when we set individuals' goals or objectives we should consider the following:

    - AUTONOMY: the person must have a choice over how they achieve the goal, and they need complete personal control over whether it is achieved or not.

    - MASTERY: the person must have the right knowledge / skills / tools to be able to achieve the goal, and they must either be able to put their unique talents to use in achieving it, or learn something they want to learn in the process of achieving it.

    - PURPOSE: the goal must be clearly linked to something the person values, or they believe that meeting the goal will make the world a better place.

  • These pitfalls have been around for some time in organisations - as well as reviewing past performance, organisations should focus on individual / team potential, aspirations and learning agility; this would be a positive step forward. I agree that appraisals should form part of other performance systems.

  • Spot on!

  • Appraisals, why wait 12 months to tell someone they're doing a good job or performing badly, after all there's nothing that can be changed in the past. From experience I can say much of my appraisal depended on the relationship I had with my reporting officer. How would you rate Custer of the 7th. A natural leader, his men will follow him anywhere, or a risk taker who fails to conduct a simple risk assessment. It depend on where you are standing, not on his performance. But when you offer an opinion it is worthless, write that opinion down in an appraisal and it becomes fact. An opinion that can make or break a career.

  • The biggest error I see with appraisals is too many objectives. I often see people getting 10, 15 or even 20 objectives set; managers seem to think that if they set a lot of objectives then they really must be managing performance.

    I think the 2 objectives is ideal, 3 acceptable. If you're going much over 3 then either you're overloading the appraisee or you're going far too detailed. Usually objectives should be very broad but still be related to that person's job and have a link ("The golden thread") to the team, department and corporate objectives.

    Another common error, which is probably caused by the 'too many objectives' issue, is setting objectives that are unrelated to apparaisee's job and progression. It's fair enough to set an objective that isn't related to the person's current job so long as it's related to demonstrating their ability to progress into their next job. But, it has to be related to demonstrating that they have the ability to progress into their next job and the next job has to be the one they want to progress into rather than the one the manager thinks they should want to progress into.

  • Really helpful checklist to help appraisals achieve productive and motivated outcomes.

  • The point about giving/getting feedback only once a year is spot on.  Read this illuminating parable which shows the danger of such an approach. http://bit.ly/hE0at3

  • The “How” of Successful Performance Appraisals

    Performance Appraisals for many people are just too hard. There is universal agreement that the outputs from successful reviews are always a “good thing;” but many can be so painful and exhausting that people get stressed just thinking about them; let alone doing them.

    Sometimes the scale of the challenge can be simply identified by asking senior managers the question   “What is the general competence level of your management team for staff engagement?” and being told “……they are… OK”

    Performance Appraisals are just management speak for letting people know where they stand in respect of their behaviour, attitude, interpersonal skills, job competence, and task progress.

    Many managers will formally and informally recognise good work with a “well done” and a “thank you.” They will even talk about disappointing performance; but somehow are often incapable of recording any such conversation; and the agreed next actions.  

    Failure to have formal, or informal, regular and recorded feedback for their team members is one of the more common and easily recognised sign of a disappointing manager.

    Failure to create and maintain a consistent regular feedback process that all managers must comply with is a recognised sign of disappointing organisational leadership.

    Why do people present themselves for work every day?  Mr Maslow identifies in his journey to Self-Actualization the condition of Self Esteem. This is the sense of achievement, independence, status, and prestige usually reached by working with others, often in the workplace.

    Because self esteem fuels the journey through life the brain has developed early warning sensors to ensure we do not put ourselves in harm’s way, the red zone.

    The first thing may be to stop having just one annual appraisal meeting with each member of staff. There is no greater stress for an” OK manager” than a conversation about poor performance particularly if the evidence for this is inadequate, contentious and previously unrecorded.

    What is needed is a consistent process of regular performance reviews that are mandated for all managers to carry out. What could this meeting look like? Well, it often exists already; it’s called a progress review meeting, catch up, or chat. These meeting usually have some annual objectives, and for some personal improvement goals. Therefore because they are reviews of progress, it is impossible not to talk about performance that is either disappointing or outstanding. What is different is this time, following discussions about performance, something will be recorded.

    It is vital these are not chats about what is going on, masquerading as review meetings.

    One to one progress and performance reviews will usually be held every 6 weeks or so, 6 or 7 a year. Let us repeat:  these will not be new meetings, they are just improved existing progress revue meetings.

    “What must the appraisal process have?” perhaps:-

    • Must be a regular habit; not an annual event.

    • Agenda and record must be mutually agreed.

    • Identify and set individual objectives that align with team and organisational goals.

    • Reviews current progress and performance against agreed objectives.

    • Closer engagement and development of the individual.

    Perhaps more importantly, regular engagement with the team manager is a powerful recharging of an individual’s self esteem fuel tank. Team members have been given the greatest gift a manager can bestow, their time.

    The answer Perhaps invest your limited L & D budget this year in developing better people engagement skills within every member of your management team. OK is not OK. Change the managers or change the managers; there is no alternative.

    Perhaps require organisational leadership to design, acquire or improve the current progress review format. Make it a process that will expand the review into discussions about progress and the performance that delivered it.  

    It’s simple; just not easy.