How To Appraise
Article on how to conduct an appraisal of your staff.
A structure for appraisal
Once you have decided how often you are going to appraise and where the best information on performance is likely to be found, the next thing to consider is how you are actually going to carry the appraisal out.
The appraisal interview is time taken out of the everyday routine when, for a little while, you stand back from things and deliberately take in the full panoramic view - 'the big picture'. It is often the appraisee's one and only chance to say exactly what is on their mind - whether you want to hear it or not.
Some say that there is little difference between the process of a selection interview and that of an appraisal interview. There may be a shift in focus but the structure of a selection interview, ie beginning - middle - end, is reflected by a similar model involving appraisal: reviewing past performance - setting the performance step - checking understanding.
It may help you, however, to think of the process more as a meeting; at interview, one party questions and the other one answers; at a meeting, there is a general sharing of thoughts and ideas. However you see the process, it is vital that you do not attempt to force or manipulate agreement; this would result in a superficial accord that would be unlikely to prompt action.
Setting the performance step means identifying ways in which employees can improve performance to meet organisational objectives. Checking understanding involves making sure that the performance step is agreed and understood.
Checking the last step
This is often the most sensitive point of the appraisal process, as it deals with issues of potential failure in performance and/or the nature of the relationship between manager and employee. Looking backwards is useful only in discovering the causes of potential failure so that they can be put right for the future. Managers often spend 90% of an appraisal considering past performance, 75% of which concentrates on negative aspects of that performance. This means that only 10% is spent looking forward and 25% at good performance. It is hardly surprising that neither managers nor employees look forward to appraisal.
Reviewing the last step should concentrate on the employee's average performance during the period being reviewed. We will see in 'What can go wrong with the appraisal process?' that we tend to pick out the peaks or troughs rather than overall performance. In checking the last step, it is much more useful to concentrate on those elements of performance that are currently acceptable and identify ways in which they can be improved.
This stage of appraisal should contain no surprises. It is more of a formal opportunity to look back over a period of time and summarise performance, followed by the next stage - an opportunity to look forward to the next period, to agree work objectives and to explore development needs.
In checking the last performance step, remember to ask what has gone right before you ask what has gone wrong. Equally, once people have identified what has gone wrong, listen and use probing questions before you begin to give feedback.
Setting the performance step
Broadly setting the performance step involves two types of activity. The first is to gather information about the person's capacity to perform. It is useless setting a performance step unless the employee is able to carry it out. This involves establishing an agenda that doesn't just focus on particular tasks. The primary issue in the early stages of the review is to gather information. This means that the person appraising needs to initiate conversation and listen actively. The conversation here should focus on the wider world of work - relationships with other staff members and career aspirations. This will help develop a whole picture of the individual's needs and potential.
Relationships are vital in the process of managing people. When setting the performance step, you should attempt to maintain your relationship with the person being appraised. This emphasis on mutuality ('We are going to have a problem next year with the new Health and Safety regulations') will avoid appraisal being seen as something which is 'done to' the employee. If you don't feel, however, that your relationship with the employee is a good one, try to avoid this. When a manager has spent twelve months telling an employee that 'you've done this and you haven't done that', the latter will not welcome the proverbial arm around the shoulder on the one day of appraisal.
Where a poor relationship exists, try to improve it outside of the appraisal context. Where this isn't possible, try to tap into the appraisee's interests, and foresee what they might want from the interview. This first stage is to encourage them to talk about their work as they see it. Whilst you may not see it in quite the same way, their perceptions are true for them.
The final action at this stage is to acknowledge that performance depends on your relationship, and to ask for honest feedback about your own performance as a manager. This does not mean tacking a forlorn, 'What more can I do as your manager?' on the end of the interview. The emphasis on 'your manager' may be sufficient to block feedback. It means honestly asking for, and dealing with, feedback from the employee when it comes.
Once the relationship issues have been dealt with, the second type of activity involves tackling actual aspects of performance.
Dealing with performance
When addressing work issues, you should plan effectively. Without adequate preparation in an appraisal interview, important topics may be lost. In fact, formal interviews are likely to lose such topics because they tend to structure communication, with the result that it becomes less wide-ranging.
The main issues with regard to performance at this stage of the process are that you should always talk about performance, responsibilities, and accountabilities, rather than individual tasks. An effective manager needs to set objectives, targets and results, not methods or means.
In setting a performance step, you should bear in mind that it is not merely enough to agree the steps; you must also take some action to make this happen. A step should never be identified and responsibility not allocated. This may mean writing down what was said and highlighting agreed action and responsibilities. Many organisations record appraisals, although when an appraisal has little to do with day-to-day performance this may be merely an exercise in covering one's back. The performance step should, however, be recorded and shared.
The performance step should always be a realistic one (preferably measurable and timed, too). It is possible to have such a positive relationship with an employee that plans can get out of hand. It is far better to agree a small performance step and the action that it will need to be supported by, rather than a large, unrealistic one.
Checking for agreement and understanding
The first rule in checking for agreement is to listen more than you talk. If you don't listen, the appraisal may well become a one-way exercise in communication. It is often the case that a manager has too many visions for the future of the organisation and ideas about helping staff develop. This enthusiasm may overwhelm the appraisee.
Remember at this point also that appraisal is a focused discussion leading to an agreed action or set of actions. Some people may not have a lot to say at appraisal. Checking the step involves using communication skills in both good and poor relationships.
In checking the step you will also need to use probing and open questions to encourage people to speak freely, to make thorough and honest self-assessments, and to elicit agreement with regard to the nature of the step. In this part of the process, you should also encourage the appraisee to speak first. Encouraging the appraisee to set their agenda for the interview establishes equality in the relationship and shows that you value the employee by putting them first.