June 4, 2012 8:49 pm

Five steps to career appraisal perfection

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The percption of reviews hampers the process

Of the many career appraisals I’ve perpetrated on team members, two stand out. In one, I spent so long probing the weaknesses of a star performer they eventually asked: “Was there anything good about my performance last year?” In the other, I added a colleague’s lofty goal to the box on the form labelled “career aspiration”, only to be told by my own manager to go back and inform my team member that the dream was way beyond their reach.

Yet I consider myself a fan of performance reviews.

W. Edwards Deming, the US management expert, was not. He endorsed the view that a system of merit ratings, performance evaluations and annual reviews “nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, nourishes rivalry and politics”.

That was in the 1980s, but the sense that performance reviews are useless and doomed is the most persistent of several misconceptions that hamper evolution of the process. In fact, the need for diligently undertaken, properly constructed performance management and measurement becomes stronger as traditional corporate structures erode and are replaced by flatter, more collaborative organisations.

So, here are five ways to improve the process.

Don’t make it an annual exercise in form-filling. Appraisal forms are, to the nervous manager, what PowerPoint is to the nervous speech writer – a crutch and a distraction.

Critics of performance reviews sometimes cite companies such as WL Gore or HCL Technologies as organisations that have “abolished” the system. But they have simply done away with formal appraisal in favour of different forms of open peer review. Jean-François Coget of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, has been studying 23 companies that dropped formal appraisals 10 or more years ago. Most still rely on more frequent informal feedback, but even some of these outliers still schedule an annual chat about career goals.

More conventional companies are moving to year-round appraisal, too, helped by technology that allows for more frequent interaction between team leader and team member about changing roles and goals. It is idealistic to imagine that a written record of what individuals have achieved is unnecessary. Companies such as Gore and HCL have managed, instead, to open up such reviews to wider scrutiny and comment.

Take time. New techniques can streamline the process but that should free managers to do what they ought to have been doing all along: training people to appraise and be appraised, preparing for discussions, monitoring the outcome and providing feedback.

Lead from the front. Research by Ed Lawler of the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business and others suggests a strong correlation between good performance management and leadership by senior executives. CEOs don’t have to do it all themselves: in fact, such systems are even more effective when “owned” by line managers.

Don’t assume all performance reviews have to be face to face. Prof Lawler once interviewed an employee who claimed he had not received a career appraisal, even though his manager said he had. When his memory was jogged, the junior staffer recalled that the boss had indeed offered a few pointers towards performance improvement – while the two of them were sitting in adjacent toilet cubicles.

Nobody recommends this hands-off technique. But the proliferation of global teams makes it harder for leaders to meet colleagues regularly in person. Virtual performance review sounds a poor substitute but it may, on occasion, mitigate the stage-fright, risk of confrontation and emotional disarray that lead to set-piece appraisal blunders like mine. (Beware, however, the tech-fuelled temptation to vent online frustrations better left unsaid.)

Remember that even improved processes won’t satisfy everyone. Appraisal nirvana is still a long way off: many companies are still terrible at the basics. But imagine if every organisation provided objective, rounded, honest and regular feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of individual staff – and their managers. You can bet that a few poor performers would still seek to blame this ideal system for the low esteem in which their colleagues (rightly) held them.

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