Rethinking the Performance Appraisal

September 10th, 2013

We’ve hit the fall of 2013, and The Season is nearly upon us! No, I don’t mean, football, hunting or even the holidays. I’m talking about (insert drum roll here) Performance Appraisal Season. Someone must love performance appraisals, but I have never met this person. Most entrepreneurs I know despise them and most human resources managers I have worked with see them as a necessary but tedious part of the workplace routine – like flossing for business. A quick search on your favorite engine will turn up no less than 650,000 results, primarily focused on how to make the process less horrible than it is. The question I have is, “Why are we doing this to ourselves?”

In the last century, the United States workforce experienced times of truly horrible conditions, blatant mistreatment and rampant overt and subtle abuse and exploitation. These events led to a series of reforms and laws that now make the American work environment (while not perfect) among the best in the world. But, in the words of writer Oscar Wilde, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

To comply with increasingly complicated and litigated rules, many companies have resorted to lengthy and multipart performance systems that attempt to grade objectively work that, often, does not fit easily into “good” and “bad” categories. At the same time many small businesses have decided to forego appraisals entirely as useless bureaucracy. The result is a workforce complaining that feedback is poor, inaccurate or completely lacking; which results in floundering, unmotivated employees and frustrated managers.

Enter the Generation Y, Facebook, Pinterest and email world of instant commentary (read “feedback”) — plentiful, often uncensored and available at the “like” of a mouse click. Who wants to wait for the annual (or at best quarterly) performance appraisal ritual? Indeed, with shortening product cycles and instant world-wide communication, how realistic is it to confine feedback to an annual conversation? Most managers and HR professionals would say in an effective performance review, nothing is a surprise. Rather, feedback has been given all year and the review is simply a designated time to talk through specific issues and set goals for the next period. That is a perfect ideal and works well…when it works well. The problem is that, most of the time, it does not work well.

People need feedback. Laws are real and companies need to have sufficient documentation for personnel actions – good or bad. Yet the majority of performance management systems are infuriatingly inadequate at best and dangerous demotivating at worst! What’s an enlightened employer to do? Based on two decades of work inside large and small companies across multiple industries, I offer the following:

  1. 1. Have a plan for feedback conversations. Whether or not your company uses an official form or appraisal system, establish a time for frank, individual conversations with your team members about their successes, mistakes, lessons learned and future goals. Put these conversations on your calendar at a minimum every four to six weeks, and keep the appointments.

  2. 2. Write something down. Once every week or two, take ten minutes per team member to reflect. What have they done well? What needs improvement? Where do they seem to want to learn more? Record these thoughts in a notebook or electronic journal along with the date, and you will be ready with concrete examples of work you’d like to see repeated and judgment calls that need adjusting for your next conversation.

  3. 3. Use electronics to your advantage. Did someone do a great job? Send a quick email letting them know it, or post a recommendation on their Linked In account regarding the terrific project they just managed. A few honest words delivered in a timely way have remarkable impact.

  4. 4. Consider using shared work platforms where team members can post work, feedback, suggestions and praise in real time. There are many platforms out there, but to get your creative juices flowing, take a look at Sharepoint or for ideas.

  5. 5. Don’t give up! You will miss a scheduled meeting, forget to reflect on your team, recognize one team member and somehow completely miss something another team member did. When this happens, take a deep breath, apologize if appropriate and start again. The momentum you will build with honest, consistent, frequent performance feedback is worth it –and you don’t have to wait until it is “The Season.”