Six Steps to Successful Performance Appraisals

October 26, 2001
Performance appraisals are one of the least liked and most dreaded responsibilitiesthat 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. Staringat you. Resenting you. Challenging you and sometimes even subverting your abilityto 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 anenjoyable and rewarding process. Yes, I said enjoyable. I'll go so far as tosay that I think performance management can be as enjoyable as the ThanksgivingDay Parade. Keep that thought in mind as I describe a six-step approach (usethe acronym PARADE to remember it) that can alleviate much of the worry anddread associated with performance management.

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

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

Step two: Assessment.
A critical manager responsibility is assessing and giving timely feedbackto your staff on their performance. There are many benefits to doing this. Feedbackon 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 theycan either address the error or replicate the success.

This also addresses two of the most common fears that managers have about performanceappraisals: confrontations and surprises. Many managers avoid delivering performancereviews 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 managerand staff.

If the performance review is the only time that managers talk with staff abouthow they're doing, and especially if employees feel that this one meeting hastremendous 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? Mostemployees, when questioned as to what the once-a-year review reminded them of,responded, "A trip to the principal's office." Ongoing communicationthroughout the year is the key to reducing the fear and anxiety associated withthis meeting for both participants.

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

Step three: Reviewing documents.
Before you actually do sit down with the employee, review all your documentationfrom the year. Take a look again at the objectives that you and the employeeagreed to and documented at the beginning of the year. Look for any commendationsor letters you may have received about the employee during the year.

Review your notes from the meetings that you've had with the employee. Thensit down and write the first draft of the performance review. Some organizationsoffer the employee the opportunity to create a first draft as well. Then themanager and the employee sit down to review the employee's progress before theactual review. This keeps the employee involved in the process and makes himfeel that he's getting a fair evaluation. It's another great technique for reducingor 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 nomatter 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 otherplace. Be creative. The cafeteria may not seem like a very private place, butin 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 onereason 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 whenthey go into this meeting.

Consider meeting in the employee's office if it has a door, or borrowing acolleague's office. Meeting somewhere other than your office also makes it easierto 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 particularlyonerous. It tends to reek of dismissal. This can undercut even the most positiveof appraisals.

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

This advice on clarity goes for both good news and bad! When it comes to goodnews, some managers avoid it because they're afraid to tell an employee shehas 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 haveto fire that employee someday, you will have a good reason why. You'll be ableto explain it to the employee because you will have developed the necessarycommunication skills.

More often, managers feel a need to hide the bad news. They're afraid to hurtthe employee's feelings, they fear an argument, or they just don't like to talkabout someone's shortcomings. Many managers feel that if the employee hasn'tdone 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, theorganization, and themselves to inform the employee.

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

Step six: Encouragement.
At the conclusion of the performance appraisal meeting, which also marks theend of one performance appraisal cycle and the beginning of the next, your jobis to encourage. You want to motivate the employee to continue doing that whichhe does well and to improve in the areas where there is room for growth. Thisis the best way to make these meetings productive and positive. Even if theperson's appraisal has not been as high as he might have hoped, remind the employeethat 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 developmentplan. This is a terrific way to let the employee know that you support him andare willing to invest your time and the organization's training dollars in hisgrowth in the company. The performance management process is actually the organization'sbest retention tool. Too often, when employees get a less-than-stellar appraisal,they take it as an indication that this is the beginning of the end. This isthe first step on that dreaded "Documentation Trail" that can onlylead to the door. Let them know that you believe in them and their ability toimprove. Your willingness to work with and invest in them is a wonderful turnaroundtool 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 interruptionsor distractions.

  • Deliver the appraisal clearly, allowing for the employee to respondin a dialogue. Don't mince words or use code.

  • Encourage employees to do more of what they do well and improvewhere they can. Make them feel valued.