I don't know many managers who get to the end of the year and are excited about going in to work to write annual performance appraisals. More often than not, the organizational appraisal process entails making sure that everyone writes evaluations in a manner consistent with Human Resources guidelines so that everyone gets appraised in a uniform way. I also speak from experience when I say that I truly hate being on the other side of the table receiving the evaluation... some of the time. I don't like surprises, and when I get surprised at a performance evaluation, something is amiss.
I'll never shout out to the world that I'm the best manager out there, but over the years, I've learned the golden rule about performance evaluations: There should be no negative surprises on either side of the desk. Most importantly, the employee should never leave the room shell-shocked about some heretofore unheard criticism. If you have an employee who does walk away shocked, one of two things is happening: (1) You've failed to keep employees regularly apprised of progress, areas of excellence, or areas that need improvement, or (2) the employee is in denial about his or her shortcomings.
For point number one, this most often happens when a manager wants to avoid conflict, which is really only human. However, avoiding addressing an issue immediately has a number of consequences, including:
- The offending employee continues the behavior.
- Other department staff members start having to pick up the slack and begin to resent the employee.
- Other members of the department turn their resentment to you for failing to act.
- Loss of morale and loss of productivity ensue as employees attempt to reinstate a level playing field.
What am I getting at here? If you fail to regularly apprise employees of progress, review progress on assignments, and address issues that arise, you're not doing your job. Further, you're disrespecting the department as a whole by forcing them to pick up the slack while you work hard to avoid what will eventually become a much more serious issue down the road.
I've also seen managers "save things up" for performance review time and then simply scatter shoot the employee with everything that was filed in the previous year. I actually saw one case where an employee made an egregious error early in the year that went unhandled, but after that, he performed absolutely admirable work, often going well above and beyond. In short, save this single instance, he was a perfect employee. At review time, the egregious error from early in the review cycle dominated the discussion and the employee received a poor overall appraisal. Handling issues in this way is devastating to someone's morale and willingness to continue extensive efforts. It was, perhaps, one of the most unprofessional processes I'd ever seen.
In another organization for which I used to work, all of the appraisals that I wrote for each of my employees had to be run by the entire senior management team before they could be finalized. While, in concept, the idea had some merit, I did not appreciate being surprised at some of the things I learned that had happened during the year, nor did I find many of the comments helpful or appropriate. The process was much more about power and control than it was about improving the organization or employee development.
Today, I have pretty regular interaction with my staff. I address issues — both negative ones and positive ones — as quickly as possible. On that point, I believe it's more important to reinforce success than it is to punish failure, unless that failure is a part of a pattern. This doesn't mean that I don't address negative issues, but I try to place them in a larger context in which the employee works.
As I mentioned earlier, I'm far from perfect and don't always get it right, but I make a sincere effort to keep the annual performance appraisal focused on bigger picture items, such as annual goals and employee development, and try to keep the "one-off" issues addressed throughout the year.
Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive with CampusWorks, Inc. Scott is available for consulting, writing, and speaking engagements and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.