Making the most of appraisals: The reviewer’s guide to a successful review

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Louise Wingrove looks at how to conduct a successful and productive appraisal.

Why bother?

In a recent training session I asked participants to identify what they liked and disliked about appraisals. The resulting ‘what I don’t like’ list far outweighed the ‘what I do like’ list. Sadly, this is a fairly typical response.

From a productivity perspective it makes sense to take time out to review employee performance. A performance review should be a developmental and motivating experience for the appraisee and valuable communication time for the appraiser. (To be clear on terms, the appraisee is the person whose performance is being reviewed and the appraiser is usually the manager of the person being reviewed.) Why, then, has the appraisal become such a dull and dreaded experience for so many?

Problems

There are some common pitfalls:

  • It becomes more about form filling than the conversation; process-led rather than people-led.
  • The conversation becomes very onesided, usually with the appraiser dominating.
  • The appraisee becomes disengaged and provides silent resistance.
  • The whole thing becomes overly timeintensive.

Unfortunately this is compounded by horror stories, such as the following:

  • Appraisees discussing their review with their manager driving down the motorway/on the train/in Starbucks (other coffee chains are also available!)
  • Appraisees being handed their appraisal form and told to sign it, without having had any discussion at all
  • Appraisal meetings being rescheduled numerous times because the manager has ‘more important things to do’!

Solutions

A well-conducted appraisal should lead to increased productivity and commitment. Even if there is some difficult feedback to give, if the review is carried out well it should still be a positive experience. A poorly delivered review can have opposite effect. It makes sense, then, to get it right. Here are my suggestions for making the appraisal a more positive experience for all.

Stage 1: Preparation

Both the appraiser and the appraisee need to do some thorough preparation before the meeting. Good preparation is key to a successful review. Typical preparation involves:

  • reviewing goals from the previous review period and noting what the appraisee did well, what didn’t go to plan and what the appraisee needs to develop further (potential development needs)
  • getting some feedback from those who work with the appraisee – this can give you some very useful insights
  • preparing your own feedback for the appraisee
  • preparing what the appraisee would like to work on or learn over the next year
  • asking the appraisee to prepare their feedback for you. The traffic light system works well and takes some of the fear out of giving feedback: What’s one thing they’d like you start doing? What’s one thing they’d like you to continue doing? What’s one thing they’d like you to stop doing?

Stage 2: The review meeting

Make sure that you give yourself enough time for the review: 30 minutes won’t cut it; 3 hours is ‘Death by Review’. One to two hours is a good amount of time. If it needs to continue beyond this time, it’s best to reschedule another meeting. Set aside the time in your diary and don’t move the meeting unless it’s an emergency: that sends a very negative signal to the appraisee about their value and your priorities.

As the appraiser, your role is to ask questions, listen, encourage reflection, give feedback, coach and help the appraisee to consider their development. The best appraisal meetings have no surprises; the appraisee feels positively supported in reviewing their work and discussing their learning and career development needs and is speaking 60–70% of the time.

Great questions

Prepare some of your questions beforehand  and limit the number of ‘why’ questions: ‘why’ can often put the other person on the defence. The effect can be a ‘closing down’ and restriction of information sharing, especially if it’s about something that didn’t go to plan. If you replace ‘why’ with ‘what were the reasons for’ you’ll get a more honest, open discussion, even when it is mistakes that are being reviewed.

Great structure

Start off the appraisal meeting by asking the appraisee to give an overview of their year. Then drill down to explore what went well, and why, what the learning points were and whether anything could be done differently next time. Apply the same approach when you are exploring what didn’t go to plan. Use a coaching technique to help the appraisee to learn from his or her experiences. This should be followed up with your own observations and feedback. By asking what the appraisee learnt from the experience and what could have been done differently, you are encouraging him or her to learn and to make changes. Rather than being about blame and defence, the conversation becomes a grown-up review.

If you focus on what the appraisee has learnt and developed through the year and their potential career development, rather than a need to rate him or her against targets, you should have a more positive, motivational discussion. It should also mean that any subsequent conversation you need to have about assessing against a rating scale becomes easier because you’ve talked through their performance in detail.

Record any learning and development needs and ensure that these are followed up. The more ownership the appraisee has of their review the better, so encourage them to own their appraisal; to come up with some of their own goals for the next review period; to lead as much of the discussion as possible; to write up their notes.

Stage 3: The follow-up

If you need to write up the appraisal notes formally, then ask the appraisee to write up their notes. It is, after all, their appraisal. You can then read through and add your comments, so reducing the amount of admin work you have to do. This can be a great time-saving tip, especially if you have a large number of people to review. Both of you can then sign off the notes as correct. Follow up any actions that you said you would take and check back with the appraisee that they have done the same.

To make appraisals a positive experience takes time in preparation and thoughtful delivery. Getting it right really is a fulfilling experience for all involved. Good luck!

Toolkit

Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

First published on this website June 2014.

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About Author

Louise Wingrove

Louise Wingrove has been a trainer and coach for over 20 years and has led global training for both public and private sector companies. She is a director of Funky Learning, a learning and development consultancy. Louise can be contacted by email: louise.wingrove@funkylearning.com

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