The great performance appraisal dichotomy

There is no doubt that “for many employees, a face-to-face performance review is the most stressful work conversation they’ll have all year” (Knight, 2011).  It’s no better from the other side of the table, where “most managers find these feedback interviews distasteful” (Meyer 1991).

It does not have to be this way. There are many suggestions to be found on how to improve on performance appraisals, including some great stuff by the likes of Jurgen Appelo in his Management 3.0 manifesto, that lay out clear and practical steps for better feedback approaches. Herein lies the root of the problem: the reason performance appraisals are hard is that, for many reasons – cultural, relational, capability gaps – people just don’t like giving frank and honest feedback.  So telling people who don’t like giving feedback to do better by giving more and regular feedback is counterintuitive.

I am yet to find anyone who disputes the value of feedback. Good managers and leaders do, in fact, give frequent, timely and relevant feedback to their teams (and seek it too – but that’s a different article).

The very reason we have performance appraisal processes is for the majority of managers who “unless constrained by some sort of administrative pressure…are likely to ignore the responsibility” (Meyer 1991). Yet reducing performance appraisals to the level of compliance gives us all the kinds of results that lead to people writing put-down articles!

Like so many practices in our workplaces, the tone is set by our leadership. I recall a recent performance review with a line manager who spent the first half of the session bemoaning the fact that his boss never gave him any feedback outside of the twice yearly performance appraisal process, while completely missing the irony of the fact he behaved exactly the same to his direct reports.

I believe that the only enduring way to bring the true value of the human, business and growth opportunities afforded by good feedback in to see organisational leadership willingly and effectively embrace good feedback processes, and to set organisational tone by willingly, regularly and effectively giving feedback – to direct reports, to peers and to their own leaders/Boards. The persistent practice of feedback will enshrine such practices within organisational culture, becoming “the way we do things around here”. Get this right, and maybe, just maybe, we can one day get rid of the performance appraisals for good.

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