Appraisals are a standard part of measuring performance in many organisations; here's how to turn them from a tedious slog into a more positive experience for managers and employees.
Why appraisals matter
As a manager you might have plenty of other things on your agenda and it is easy—especially if you have a big team—to see appraisals as a fruitless bureaucratic time suck you could do without.
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But when done well, appraisals can be a great way of reconnecting with your team and understanding what motivates them. Well-run and thoughtful appraisals can be a source of new ideas and help re-energise a department and set it on a productive path that can save you a lot of time and staffing headaches in the long run.
How to prepare for the appraisal meeting
Many appraisal processes involve your team members submitting their own take on how they've been performing in the last year, six months, or shorter period. Make sure your team understand that you are taking this process seriously: give them the time to prepare. That means considering their own performance and progress, what they have done right and wrong. They need to consider what barriers they have faced and what opportunities lie ahead. It's also important for the manager to go through exactly the same process from the other side.
Do your own appraisal homework first
If this is the first time you've thought about the appraisal process since the last time you did this team member's appraisal, you've got a lot of catching up to do. Go back over the last appraisal: and look at what you meant to follow up on. Did you get around to it?
Look at the employees' job description as well as the appraisal, but also consider what has changed in the interim and what is likely to change in the near future. Think about how team member's performance has changed in the year. If you need to ask their peers and staff that report to them for their perspective — this is usually done in confidence — make sure this assessment goes beyond the bland, back-covering platitudes, and instead is useful and meaningful.
Get the appraisal setting right
When it comes to having the appraisal meeting, make sure you set aside enough time to complete the process without interruption. And don't put anything else on the agenda: the meeting or call should all about the appraisal alone, even if that means having another separate meeting or call straight after the appraisal to discuss other day-to-day topics.
Be specific when discussing performance
When discussing performance it may be handy to refer back to previous appraisals or to the job description, again so that you both understand the requirements of the job.
But make sure that you have specific examples of good (or not so good) performance. This shows that you have actually been paying attention to the individual's performance and means that if you and the employee differ in your analysis of an event or an issue, you can discuss a concrete example rather than theoretical ones. Often when you dig into real-world examples you will come to a better understanding of the complex dynamics and pressures at work.
Listen, listen, listen
The manager should be doing less talking and more listening during an appraisal. You need to discuss the specifics of their performance from your point of view but it is also vital to hear what the individual has to say and to understand their position. If you have questions about their performance you need to allow them to respond and explain their perspective and to be as open as possible. This is particularly useful if an employee's performance has dropped, because they may be more aware of the reasons for that than you. It can be very effective to encourage employees to suggest ways they can improve their performance rather than trying to impose a fix from above.
Don't make it about blame
If you are waiting until an employee's appraisal before telling them their performance isn't good enough you have left it far too late. Performance concerns need to be addressed as soon as they occur, and not left for months before they are discussed. Appraisals should be broader discussions about long-term performance and opportunities for development, not time to play the blame game. So don't drop any bombshells here - nothing in the appraisal should come as a huge surprise.
Prepare for the unexpected
But while you should not be springing any surprises during an appraisal, it's quite possible that your staff will do just that. They may feel that they don't have many other options or opportunities for bringing up issues that have been worrying them. That might not be ideal in the context of the appraisal process but it is better that these issues are raised rather than remain simmering. However, it's also important to make sure staff are able to raise these issues on an ongoing basis; it may be worth you considering why they feel that they have to wait until now.
Work is hectic and it's very rare for staff to have the time to discuss issues on a one-to-one basis that is not part of a disciplinary process. It's also very rare for employees to have a wide-ranging discussion about their role and performance with their boss. An appraisal should include time to do this. It's a good idea to have a set of points to discuss but don't be hugely surprised if the conversation veers away from them somewhat.
Similarly, when looking at broader questions of opportunities for the future or for the direction of the business, you may find your staff have a very different perception of where the organisation is going.
Don't just look backwards
It is important of course to look at previous performance (and work together on solving any performance issues) but it's also important that appraisals look forward. This is especially true if there are changes to an individual's role ahead, or broader changes for the organisation. Agree goals that are in line with the goals of the team and the broader organisation. Make them realistic and measurable. Remember that making one target a priority may have an impact on other goals; not everything can be top of the to-do list. Record them in whatever form you company requires.
Don't forget to follow up
Appraisals can be a really good source of ideas, either in terms of personal development or good ideas for the business to explore further. However, these are often written down in the appraisal report and then forgotten until the next appraisal swings around. Make sure that there is an opportunity to follow up on the issues and ideas raised during the meeting (see the section Do your own appraisal homework first, above). If the team sees that you are taking the appraisal process seriously they are more likely to attempt to hit the performance targets that you have set, making the appraisal process easier next time around, as everyone can be clear about priorities and how to achieve them.
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Steve Ranger has nothing to disclose. He does not hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic. An award-winning journalist, Steve writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture, and regularly appears on TV and radio discussing tech issues. Previously he was the editor of silicon.com.