how to perform an effective appraisal

The word ‘appraisal’ in itself seems to strike fear into the hearts of many.

It has had such mixed press over the years, and many businesses have or are considering dropping anything that resembles an appraisal, altogether!

But if appraisals are done effectively, and are part of a healthy approach to performance management, then they can actually add a lot of value, both culturally and to the individuals involved.

This article is written from the perspective of the line manager, or the ‘appraiser’, but it is equally useful for the person being appraised, or the appraisee.

It aims to set out a simple guide from start to finish of how to prepare for, conduct and follow up an appraisal with your team members.  

The first thing to flag is that if your company’s appraisal is a simple annual meeting, which does not have a whole of other components around it, then it could well end up being and just feeling like an onerous opportunity to tell you all the bad stuff, and where you have been going wrong.

This is what contributes to many dreading their annual appraisal.

Unfortunately, lots of appraisal meetings end up being that way, either because there is not a properly defined process within the organisation, line managers don’t have the skills or the will to do anything different, or the systems or tools are in some way not adequate, and quite possibly, all of the above!

So how do you dramatically improve appraisals from the above picture?  Well, there are really two key areas:

This article is about the latter point above, but you will find another article on our site about the former which is really the bigger picture of performance management.

So here are the components and steps to making the whole employee appraisal experience a great one.

1. Preparation

There are many old cliches around this word, and these are all relevant to conducting an appraisal meeting.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail, or something like that…

What are you Appraising?

It is difficult to perform an effective appraisal if you are not clear what you are appraising the person against. Many businesses, particularly smaller ones do things in a very informal and ‘gut feel’ way.  This clearly has some benefits but also can be quite ineffective, and very frustrating.

Your employees should have been set clear direction, boundaries & standards at the start of the year or appraisal period which should include:

If you have not historically done the above ‘properly’, then it may be that for now the appraisal is just a good chat and feels quite subjective.  The trick will be to learn from that and start now to ensure that the next appraisal is more robust by setting clearer direction in the new cycle.

Either way, the start point for an appraisal is for the employee and the line manager to ensure they are clear on what was expected of the appraisee and to compare what actually happened with what should have happened, or has been demonstrated and delivered.

Ideally, this information will have been tracked in a web-based system, or at least a series of spreadsheets and word documents.

So the appraisee should be expected and encouraged to go through a self-assessment process of their perception of their actual performance and results when compared to these standards and objectives set.

Book the meeting and give clarity on the process

As the line manager, you should be responsible for arranging the appraisal meeting.  These days this can be done remotely via video conference, although many will still prefer to do it face to face.

So have a conversation with your team members, and book the meetings in for a period which fits within the deadlines of your organisation’s process, as well as allowing them and you sufficient time to prepare and self assess.

You should book adequate time, which will depend on a number of factors, but 90 minutes to 2 hours per person should be sufficient.

Also, consider the environment.  You should arrange the meetings in private and you both should be able to be ‘comfortable’, so not in the middle of a coffee shop, or in a dark dingy small office with no windows.  Make it pleasant, light and bright, and have good coffee available! 

Prepare Your Approach

We all have our own style in the way we run meetings and behave with our colleagues generally, so consider how best to approach appraisal meetings.

The idea is that you put people at ease, you make it about them, you are supportive as well as challenging, and ultimately get the most out of them and your time together.

So consider and select a structure and approach which will achieve the above.

2. Conducting an Appraisal Meeting

Running an appraisal meeting is a skill and requires a number of disciplines just like many other situations in business.

Here are a few tips of what and how to focus:

Set up the meeting

Most meetings just drift into the conversation, and of course, you may know the appraisee very well, or maybe you won’t.

Try using our 3Ps technique to set the meeting up as follows:

After this, aim to get the appraisee’s confirmation that they understand and agree and then stick to the structure and approach that you prepared at least at the start.

Get the Employee Talking

It’s usually good practice to begin the conversation by asking some well placed ‘bigger picture’ or general questions.  This allows the line manager to sense the mood and to pick up on ‘hooks’ both visual and verbal in the initial responses.

This, however, requires you as the line manager to be ‘in the moment’, and not preoccupied with simply thinking about your next question or indeed that difficult feedback you are not looking forward to giving later in the meeting.!

So ‘be in the moment’…it’s amazing how much can be gained by just listening & observing and doing the occasional summary in response.

If and when you pick up on hooks from the appraisee contained in their responses, you can either opt to dig deeper and discuss there and then, or save until later.

Go Through their Prepared Information

You will almost certainly have a copy of their preparation on a hard copy or PC document, or maybe your organisation uses proper performance management software to display the details on a screen.

Either way, encourage them to talk you through the details of their performance for the cycle just completed.  They should take it step-by-step, focus in whatever order seems right, but it should include a focus on their achievements and performance vs:

It will be apparent how they have performed, and how realistic they are being with themselves.

You’ll find some people are overly hard on themselves; others are the opposite, they want to magnify the good stuff and gloss over where they have not been successful.

Many though will be about right.

So this section is the main body of the meeting.  You listen to the employee go through each point of the relevant sections above, and then comment, discuss, ask questions about it, and give your own perspective.

For factual objectives such as financial targets, as long as the source data is agreed to be correct, there should be no subjectivity, it’s either achieved or it isn’t.

For more subjective things such as behaviours, then this requires a skilful conversation to ensure you understand their perspective, and they yours.

In short, at the end of this section, you should both have a fairly congruent understanding of how the person has performed in each section and overall.

A final note here; if this part of the process seems fraught with difficulty and ends up being a bit of a bun fight, then this is probably flagging that the initial direction, standards and objectives were not sufficiently robust, so you end up finding it very difficult to properly assess how close to what was expected has actually been achieved.

Use the Power of Feedback

The appraisal meeting is clearly an ideal opportunity to offer your observations to the appraisee, both on topics that they have raised or have already discussed as well as ones they haven’t.

Feedback is really divided into two categories for two different purposes:

  1. Positive observations to improve their confidence
  2. Corrective or improvement based observations to improve their competence, reduce their risk of making errors or deliver a better outcome in some way

This article will not go into the depths of the various techniques for actually formulating and delivering feedback, you can see this in one of our other articles.

Try to differentiate between the two categories, this makes it easier to digest.  So give your views of corrective first, then positive second, or vice versa.

Do remember, two golden rules:

  1. Any feedback you give should be for their benefit, not just to get your frustrations off your chest or in some way to hurt or criticise
  1. The appraisal meeting should not be derailed by surprises or contentious topics that are the first time the appraisee has heard of it.  Too often the ONLY time employees get any meaningful feedback is during their appraisal meeting which is why so many dread it so much.  Do all you can to make feedback part of the ‘daily diet’ through the year.  This way the appraisal meeting will be there to merely formalise and discuss solutions rather than create unnecessary issues.

And remember also that feedback is two way.  So do all you can to solicit feedback from your team member.  The ‘way’ you ask will affect how likely you are to hear anything useful and how much they want to be honest with you.

If they say they don’t have any, it’s highly likely that this means they just don’t want to tell you, in which case you have to ask yourself why?

Similarly to making feedback cultural all year round, don’t use the appraisal as the first and only time you ever ask for it.  And if you do get something back, be sure to ask questions about it so you properly understand it, what they are observing and how it is impacting.

Agree on an Action Plan

Great appraisal meetings always have clear actions in the end.  So there is no point in reviewing something historical if it doesn’t in some way add value to the forward plan.

So document the history and make sure that parties are in at least broad agreement on the ‘reality’.  Then be sure to agree with the appraisee the following:

And Remember the Stretch

An appraisal meeting, whilst not the only time is an ideal time to have a longer-term career conversation and/or just how they want to be stretched in their role.

Some people are just happy to be and stay where they are, others are fiercely career-minded.

But most people, even those who are not career-minded still want to be engaged and challenged in a good way, so discuss not just gaps in their current delivery, but also what development gaps are there if the person wants to stretch their current role, or indeed go for a promotion or a sideways move to another role.

3. Follow up and Leverage the Appraisal

Too many times an appraisal is conducted, completed and then forgotten about.

Effective performance management should be a cultural loop, not just a set of tasks every year.

So as a line manager, encourage your people to keep the appraisal outcomes and actions alive.  If you never mention it, never ask to review it, and don’t keep your side of the agreement then for most, you would understand why they don’t either.

Sign off the Appraisal Quickly

Whatever system you are using, an offline one or an online one, complete your sections as the manager, sign it off and provide a copy to your employee.  This shows great intent and that you value the process & the outcomes.

Arrange Regular Catch ups and Informal Reviews

Great performance management cultures rely much more on regular and less formal temperature checks than they do on an annual appraisal.

So encourage your team members to ‘want’ to do this with you, to keep their objectives and PDPs front of mind, and to review them regularly.

Arrange open conversations where they are prepared to be open and honest with you about how they are feeling, what’s working, what is less so.

Get into a Feedback Habit

As referred to above, too many appraisal meetings are full of surprises, so ease that pain by agreeing with your team members when, how and broadly about what they would value your feedback, and vice versa.

Then do all you can to stick to that agreement.

Do Some Coaching

Don’t fall into the trap that so many line managers do, believing you have to solve every problem for the team member.

It’s too easy to just make suggestions and give them the answers, and for many line managers it’s an ego and status thing that says ‘I know more than you, that’s why I am your manager.’

This is highly likely to be debilitating and ineffective if this is the only ‘modus operandi’ you use.

Instead, ask them questions, pick up on the hooks of uncertainty, them struggling in some way or just needing to discuss the issue.  Playback their words to help them crystalise in their own mind what they are saying, and do all you can to not push them into what YOU think they should do.

The well known Australian Cricket Coach John Buchannan once said about coaching….

“The art of a great coach is not to put the greatness into humanity, it is to elicit it, for the greatness is there already.”

Wise words indeed.

A Final Note

If your business does not use any sort of web-based process and system to assist with your performance management process, then you could save a lot of time, hassle and even money by investing a little in one.

We built Immerse Performance with this advice in mind so effective employee appraisals can be easier than ever to conduct.

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