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Annual appraisals – why bother?

Posted on by from Egon Zehnder

Annual appraisals… possibly one of the more demotivating phrases in the English language. How could we make them better?

It's appraisal time...

Given the time of year, the chances are that you have recently completed an annual appraisal round. Whether or not you were mainly doing the appraising or being assessed yourself, I’m sure that you invested a lot of emotional energy, intellectual energy and time. I am also willing to bet that, for the vast majority, the whole process is unlikely to have put a spring in your step. In fact, judging by the number of senior executives who write to search firms in January, it may even, in part, have catalysed a number of talented executives to seek a new employer.

What are the issues surrounding appraisals?

So why do we all devote so much time to appraisals if they don’t yield the desired benefit and what could we do to improve matters? Starting with the problems, there are quite a few:

•    Its once a year. Imagine applying that to your favourite sports team, individual athlete or band. I’m guessing Usain Bolt wouldn’t be so happy with a coach that only gave him an annual appraisal. That wouldn’t be so bad if there was a lot of discussion through the year. However, the more senior you are, the less feedback you are likely to get.

•    There is little or no training offered to those providing feedback. Giving feedback in a positive and constructive manner is a skilled art; providing a form to fill out and a deadline to meet doesn’t really cut it.

•    Too much of the conversation is likely to centre on weaknesses. For many, continuing to hone an existing strength and teaching it to others is likely to provide a higher ROI and lead to a happier team member.

•    The development need as stated is often either an outcome, can seem impossible to achieve, or insufficient help is provided. Starting with a smaller step is more likely to yield a positive long-term result. For example, instead of telling a senior executive to “be more strategic”, an alternative might be to suggest working on a strategy initiative with a colleague skilled in the area.

•    Its often interlinked with decisions on pay rises and bonuses. This might seem entirely rational from the employers’ perspective. From the individual being appraised, it may seem inequitable to be criticised and punished financially for something that could have been pointed out and corrected 11 months ago.

Given all of these pitfalls, its not surprising that neuroscientists now point out that appraisal meetings are fertile ground for triggering an amygdala response – flight, fight or freeze. This is hardly much fun for either the feedback receiver or provider.

So, instead of spending a considerable amount of time demoralising ourselves, what could we do differently?

It sounds blindingly obvious, but the first step for all of us is to ensure we know our teams well enough, what else is going on in their life that might impact their business performance and their short and long-term aspirations. This isn’t as easy as it sounds (see my previous article on identity).

Gather balanced 360° feedback – our own views are only one perspective, and likely to be filtered through our own conscious and unconscious biases.

Ask for feedback from your team on what would help them become more successful or impactful in their current roles. It is easy to hold an individual accountable for something that is actually an organisational issue.

Another area is to provide feedback frequently, at a micro level, ensure that most of it is positive and ask subordinates for their views on us. Two-way, frequent communications means that feedback is familiar, helpful and unthreatening. I’m sure that Usain Bolt has multiple discussions with his coach daily. I doubt they trigger his amygdala response.

Seek training in how to have difficult conversations. There are a number of books and programmes that can assist but at heart, a good first step is to think first from the other person’s perspective, not ours, and assume your team members are doing their best.

Create an open application process for senior appointments. It is easy for talented executives to assume they will never be promoted whilst they work for a line manager who does not appear to be sympathetic to their aspirations. 

All of this is very easy to suggest and very hard to do. However, the time, energy and resources devoted to many current appraisal systems may actually be inhibiting, rather than enhancing business performance. 

James Martin

By James Martin

James is head of of HR practice at Egon Zehnder.

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