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Six Steps to Successful Performance Appraisals

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IQPC SixSigmaHR

Managers often dread performance appraisals like the plague, but – done correctly – they can actually be enjoyable and productive.

Performance appraisals are one of the least liked and most dreaded responsibilities that any manager has to endure.

They're worse than terminations. After you fire someone, they're gone; but after a performance review, they're still around. Staring at you. Resenting you. Challenging you and sometimes even subverting your ability to manage the group. Some managers will go to great lengths to avoid doing reviews.

I'm of a different opinion. I believe that performance management can be an enjoyable and rewarding process. Yes, I said enjoyable. I'll go so far as to say that I think performance management can be as enjoyable as the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Keep that thought in mind as I describe a six-step approach (use the acronym PARADE to remember it) that can alleviate much of the worry and dread associated with performance management.

Step one: Preparation

The key to success in any endeavor is preparation. In this case, preparation means sitting down and creating objectives for the performance period. We've got to ensure that people know what's expected of them if we ever expect them to achieve it.

Think of setting objectives as a road map with a set of directions. The road map is your organization, or your industry, and the directions lead employees to their goal. If people don't know where they're going, how can we ever expect them to get there? How will they know when they've arrived? It's also critical to get employees' input on their own objectives if we want to increase their commitment to achieving those goals. If people feel that they have a voice in their assignments, they will frequently work harder toward the success of those assignments.

Step two: Assessment

A critical manager responsibility is assessing and giving timely feedback to your staff on their performance. There are many benefits to doing this. Feedback on performance that is given as soon as possible has proven to be the most effective. It's not fair or effective to tell someone how she messed up, or (more rarely) how well she did, weeks after the job is done. Let people know quickly so they can either address the error or replicate the success.

This also addresses two of the most common fears that managers have about performance appraisals: confrontations and surprises. Many managers avoid delivering performance reviews because they fear confrontation. They see it as an "us versus them" event. This is usually a result of a lack of communication between the manager and staff.

If the performance review is the only time that managers talk with staff about how they're doing, and especially if employees feel that this one meeting has tremendous impact on their salary increases, the meeting takes on enormous proportions. With all the tension in the room, how can it be a successful interchange? Most employees, when questioned as to what the once-a-year review reminded them of, responded, "A trip to the principal's office." Ongoing communication throughout the year is the key to reducing the fear and anxiety associated with this meeting for both participants.

When asked what they want out of the performance review meeting, both managers and staff most often respond, "No surprises." This is what I hear even more often than a hope for the highest rating. Not everyone expects to be a superstar, but people want to know how they are doing. They don't want to have it sprung on them at the last minute, when they no longer have the opportunity to do anything about it. They want to be treated with respect and as partners throughout the performance cycle. Continuous assessment and feedback is the key to ensuring that there are no surprises, which of course also lessens the likelihood of a confrontation. Surprises beget confrontations. Communication prevents them.

Step three: Reviewing documents

Before you actually do sit down with the employee, review all your documentation from the year. Take a look again at the objectives that you and the employee agreed to and documented at the beginning of the year. Look for any commendations or letters you may have received about the employee during the year.

Review your notes from the meetings that you've had with the employee. Then sit down and write the first draft of the performance review. Some organizations offer the employee the opportunity to create a first draft as well. Then the manager and the employee sit down to review the employee's progress before the actual review. This keeps the employee involved in the process and makes him feel that he's getting a fair evaluation. It's another great technique for reducing or eliminating surprises.

Step four: Appropriate setting

Make sure that you have an appropriate setting in which to deliver the appraisal. The most commonly used location, a manager's office, is often the worst place. It's not neutral territory (remember that principal's office analogy), and no matter how much rapport-building you do or how long you've worked with the employee, it's still "your turf."

A conference room is often best, but if that's not available, find some other place. Be creative. The cafeteria may not seem like a very private place, but in between mealtimes, it's often possible to find a secluded table in a corner. You want the setting to relax employees, not add to their anxiety. This is one reason to avoid restaurants. Some managers choose to do appraisals over lunch. It's a way to reward the employee, but restaurants at lunch are far from private. Even employees who expect positive reviews seldom feel particularly hungry when they go into this meeting.

Consider meeting in the employee's office if it has a door, or borrowing a colleague's office. Meeting somewhere other than your office also makes it easier to end the meeting. Getting someone out of your office when the review is completed, particularly if the person thinks there is more to discuss, can be particularly onerous. It tends to reek of dismissal. This can undercut even the most positive of appraisals.

Step five: Deliver it clearly

Deliver the appraisal in simple language. Don't use code or jargon, and don't mince words. Don't dance around the issue at hand even if the appraisal is not as positive as the employee might have hoped. She'll pick up on your discomfort like a shark sensing blood in the water. If she feels that you're not confident in your appraisal, she may think that there is a last-minute chance to improve it. This isn't a meeting to renegotiate the objectives or the standards for performance that were set at the beginning of the year.

This advice on clarity goes for both good news and bad! When it comes to good news, some managers avoid it because they're afraid to tell an employee she has done a good job. "What if I have to fire her someday?" they ask. I tell them that if the employee has done a good job, tell her so. If you have to fire that employee someday, you will have a good reason why. You'll be able to explain it to the employee because you will have developed the necessary communication skills. More often, managers feel a need to hide the bad news. They're afraid to hurt the employee's feelings, they fear an argument, or they just don't like to talk about someone's shortcomings. Many managers feel that if the employee hasn't done as well as expected or hoped, this is a poor reflection on the manager. If someone's performance has been subpar, managers owe it to the employee, the organization, and themselves to inform the employee.

By glossing over employees' performance deficits or inflating their ratings to spare their feelings, managers are actually exposing the company and themselves to great liability. If managers have been doing the assessment and feedback throughout the year, there is little likelihood that there will be any confrontation or conflagration at the review meeting. Tell people straight out what they've done well and where they need to improve. They'll respect you for it, and your credibility and standing as a manager will rise because of it.

Step six: Encouragement

At the conclusion of the performance appraisal meeting, which also marks the end of one performance appraisal cycle and the beginning of the next, your job is to encourage. You want to motivate the employee to continue doing that which he does well and to improve in the areas where there is room for growth. This is the best way to make these meetings productive and positive. Even if the person's appraisal has not been as high as he might have hoped, remind the employee that he is still valued and that you'll support him in his development.

Offer to set up a separate meeting at which you will discuss his development plan. This is a terrific way to let the employee know that you support him and are willing to invest your time and the organization's training dollars in his growth in the company. The performance management process is actually the organization's best retention tool. Too often, when employees get a lessthan- stellar appraisal, they take it as an indication that this is the beginning of the end. This is the first step on that dreaded "Documentation Trail" that can only lead to the door. Let them know that you believe in them and their ability to improve. Your willingness to work with and invest in them is a wonderful turnaround tool to effect an attitude adjustment.

  • Prepare to manage performance by carefully setting objectives.
  • Assess and give feedback on performance throughout the year.
  • Review all pertinent documentation before meeting with the employee.
  • Appropriate place to deliver the appraisal away from interruptions or distractions.
  • Deliver the appraisal clearly, allowing for the employee to respond in a dialogue. Don't mince words or use code.
  • Encourage employees to do more of what they do well and improve where they can. Make them feel valued.

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