Gill Taylor: What really works in appraisals

You must do the right thing in the right way, writes our columnist, or you will only demotivate your staff

Gill Taylor
Gill Taylor

Some big corporates have ditched performance appraisals because they believe they don’t work. When you look a little closer at what was ditched, it often involved "enforced rankings": a system whereby managers had to score their teams according to a set formula and, in the most ridiculous examples, fire the bottom 10 per cent. It was another example of a crazy private sector macho management practice. If this is what’s gone we should be pleased.

In the charity sector, appraisals are often the cause of much heart-searching by managers and HR departments. We feel we ought to do them, but it can often end up as a bureaucratic, form filling, deadlined nightmare that is of use to neither woman nor employee. So is it worth doing and what really works?

Fortunately, the HR membership body the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development recently did some research on goal-setting techniques and appraisals methodology and found the answers.

Appraisals do work to motivate and encourage staff and improve their performance, but only if you do the right thing in the right way.

Success in appraisal is fundamentally about the relationship between manager and staffer – there has to be trust for them to hear any feedback usefully. And the way you give feedback is crucial. In many cases, the mechanisms and delivery actually create such a negative employee response that it impairs their performance.

Action one, then, is to invest in line managers’ skills in giving feedback generally, positively and over the course of the year. Make the appraisal about praising and developing staff, not focusing on their weaknesses.

Next, always play to people’s strengths within the context of getting the whole job done. This approach has far better long-term outcomes on performance than focusing on fixing people’s weaknesses. If there are issues about technical skills or training needs, address them during the ongoing supervisions. Don’t save up a catalogue of improvements and mistakes for appraisals.

Ban the word "but". You should avoid statements such as: "Well, Gill, you’ve done well overall, but…" What do I take away from that? Whatever follows the "but". My reaction is going to be overall disappointment and possible demotivation and annoyance with my line manager.

Instead, say: "Gill, I’d like to focus on what has worked really well over this year. Let’s start with… And do you think there are any ways we could develop you further?" Now I’m a happy motivated bunny.

If your goal is to improve performance, don’t call it an appraisal and don’t link it to pay decisions. Call it a "performance development review" and make it clear that pay decisions are not made on the basis of it.

Make the paperwork useful and simple and always involve employees in assessing themselves, so include questions such as "how do you see your overall performance this year?"

If you are going to invest a lot of an organisation’s time and resources in this exercise – which costs money –  you need to give it the best chance of achieving the outcome you want: improved performance and more motivated staff.

Gill Taylor is a sector HR consultant

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