Leadership

Use performance appraisals to clarify expectations and build trust

Performance appraisals shouldn't be closed-door meetings in which you lay out your employees' faults. Conducted properly, appraisals can actually help build better relationships with your staff members.

New managers often view employee performance appraisals with fear and loathing. In a perfect world, all employees would be spectacular and would receive glowing reviews. It would be a pure pleasure to meet with staff members and share the good news about their performance. Unfortunately, not all employees are top achievers, and pointing out weaknesses or deficiencies can be difficult.

Many organizations treat appraisals as an annual burden consisting of a quick meeting between supervisor and subordinate that produce a written review that's filed and forgotten. However, appraisals—if done carefully and thoughtfully—can add considerable value to the supervisor/employee relationship and can help structure and clarify expectations for both parties.

A variety of techniques and models are available for developing good performance appraisals. But rather than describe each approach, my intent here is to point out several things to keep in mind when conducting performance appraisals no matter what technique you use. I believe it is imperative that you:
  • View the performance appraisal as a process and not an event.
  • Take the process seriously. Poorly planned and conducted performance appraisals can damage morale and serve as grounds for employee grievances.
  • Develop work standards that can be evaluated objectively and use language that is concise and unambiguous. Also, be sensitive to your own biases that can creep into the appraisal process.
  • Address the impact that incentive bonuses and pay increases can have on the appraisal process.

View performance appraisals as a process
It is important to understand that measuring performance is a fluid and ongoing process, one that can reflect the trusting and honest relationships you want to build with your team. A general rule of thumb is that if the formal appraisal uncovers significant surprises for either the employee or supervisor, the process is unsuccessful. The appraisal process consists of formal meetings where the appraisal is developed and agreed on and where performance is discussed and critiqued.

However, the process also involves informal feedback on a regular basis from the supervisor about the employee’s performance. Critiquing performance as it occurs can be an important motivator and can help your staff members redirect negative behavior or actions before they become a major problem.

Take performance appraisals seriously
It is essential to acquaint yourself with the policies and procedures established by your organization’s human resources department on developing and implementing performance appraisals. This can include the correct forms to be used, the method of documenting work standards, the percentages, or weights, placed on each work standard according to its importance to the overall work effort, and the required documentation and timelines that need to be followed.

You can easily compromise the appraisal process and management’s position with employees by not following the established policies and procedures. It is also important to be sensitive to the impact an appraisal can have on an employee and the work effort of the entire team. Generally, most people take pride in their work and their contributions. Performance appraisals conducted in a cavalier or disrespectful manner can be damaging. An employee is more likely to accept a negative performance critique if it is done in a careful and calm manner with examples cited and ideas for improvement discussed.

Be as objective and fair as possible
Base work performance on standards that can be clearly measured and documented. This includes technical requirements of an employee’s work, as well as interpersonal skills, such as customer service and teamwork. Try to avoid value judgments, such as “does not seem committed to his work” or “does not care about his coworkers.” Instead, use specific examples of behaviors that highlight your concerns, such as “does not complete tasks on schedule” or “does not keep coworkers or supervisor informed of problems with the LAN.”

You can also take various approaches to guard against biased appraisals. For instance, you can ask employees to conduct self-appraisals, in which they evaluate their own performances based on the work plans, or you can conduct peer reviews, which gives coworkers the opportunity to evaluate the performances of each other or the overall team. These approaches should not replace the appraisals you perform on your direct reports, but they can help you gather important information to make your appraisals more accurate.

Address the impact of incentive bonuses and pay increases
Most organizations tie incentive bonuses or pay increases into the performance appraisal process. This is good news for employees who are outstanding performers, since they will probably receive some sort of reward for their efforts. However, monetary rewards can create a negative team environment and damage trust if employees perceive them to be unfair. The best way you can address this issue is to acknowledge any frustrations your staff members have about not receiving monetary rewards for their efforts and work with them to identify performance goals that will likely result in monetary rewards in the future.

Sample scenario
Let's look at a hypothetical situation that illustrates some of these points. Jane had recently been promoted to supervise a team of technicians working on a LAN system in a midsize organization. She felt up to the task with regard to her technical ability and knowledge and was comfortable working with people who used the LAN. However, evaluating the work of her staff was a concern.

She approached her HR representative and spoke to her about where to begin. The HR representative guided her through the process of evaluating employees and explained the paperwork and timelines. She also showed Jane some examples of best practices within the organization and examples of creative approaches to performance appraisals. Many of these examples involved finding interesting ways to include her employees in the appraisal process, such as having them perform self-appraisals and using peer appraisals.

Jane decided to use the appraisal process as a way to build strong supervisor/employee relationships within her team. She had her staff members perform self-appraisals and also asked them to evaluate the performance of the overall team. She was surprised to find that many employees pointed out things about their performances that could be improved and were receptive to discussing ways the improvements might be accomplished. She also found the team appraisals helpful because they made the team members feel they were contributing to the effort, and they provided some good ideas about what to prioritize to improve team performance.

Meeting the challenge
Performance appraisals are a significant challenge for most new managers. However, it is possible to create a positive environment for appraisals by viewing them as a long-term and evolving process and not an event that occurs once per year, developing standards that are clear and objective, and using them as a tool for communicating with your employees about your expectations.

If you would like to learn more about conducting performance appraisals, I recommend Powerful Performance Appraisals: How to Set Expectations and Work Together to Improve Performance by Karen McKirchy (1998) andThe Challenge of Front-Line Management: Flattened Organizations in the New Economyby Ronald R. Sims, et al (2001).

New manager questions
Steven Watson has 10 years of IT management and consulting experience and has developed an understanding of how the issues faced by IT managers differ from those of their nontechnical colleagues. As a new tech manager, do you have a question you’d like him to address? Send it to us via e-mail or post it in the discussion below.

 
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