It’s time to ditch appraisals!

80546_smile21In general, does anyone actually think that traditional annual appraisals work? I don’t.

To my mind, the way that many appraisal systems are set up and operated merely serve merely to reinforce hierarchy. I’m sorry if this is overly provocative. I know there are many people who try their best to make it work. If we really believe that “command and control” management is outdated, it’s time to put something more useful in its place.

Rather than having these tedious appraisal sessions that everyone hates, we need instead to develop ways of having insightful conversations that co-create meaning, action and solutions in the moment.

Why is this change needed? The world is becoming more complex and the speed of change overwhelming. The American military has an acronym for this – VUCA – i.e., its full of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. This certainly applies to the workplace.

As such we need to develop ways of helping people make sense of VUCA, without feeling paralysed or stuck. While information technology helps, it is definitely not the answer. We don’t need more data. Just ways of turning data into information, and information into wisdom, and wisdom into coordinated action.

I believe the answer lies in having generative conversations. We we need to develop ways of conversing that help each other “go on” in the face of VUCA.

Annual appraisals don’t help. By the time we have the year-end conversation about whether we have achieved our objectives, its too late to do anything about it. What’s needed is regular, sense-making, continuous-learning conversations on a daily basis.

At the risk of labouring my point, the underlying assumption of traditional appraisals, i.e., that line managers have expert knowledge is wrong too. Line managers are not all seeing and all knowing.  Indeed, the human condition is more about ‘not knowing’, rather than ‘all knowing’. If this is true, why go through a process that’s predicated on the subjective evaluation of your performance by someone who does not (and cannot) know everything? What’s needed in a VUCA world is regular inquiry-led conversations that lead to jointly agreed solutions.

Here’s my suggestion for replacing annual appraisals. Give everyone an ‘insight journal’. Meet daily, if not possible… weekly or monthly to discuss how your people are doing on their objectives. Changing where you meet can help change the mood of your conversations. If possible, get out of the office, perhaps to a nice quiet local cafe. Content wise, focus on relational issues. This is because bad relationships are very often behind the failure to achieve. In discussing how to improve these relationships, write down insights and learnings that flow from your reflections. The next time you meet, discuss how you got on implementing these insights, and what else you learnt in the process.

It is through such dialogue that the meaning of what you do (work) is constructed and consequently how actions are agreed and coordinated.

Despite my provocative title, I realise that annual Appraisals are so imbedded in some organisations that it would be difficult for anyone individual stop its use! But if your are a line manager, you do have a choice about how your run it.

  • Use the first meeting to co-create joint objectives.
  • Use the year end meeting to review learning and to celebrate what’s been achieved.
  •  Emphasise the importance of your regular catch ups.
  • Keep the sessions light by focusing on the big picture (leave the micro stuff to your regular meetings).
  • Make your meetings conversational (i.e., inquiring not telling).
  • Pay attention to noticing where relationships need improving.
  • Make it more about inquiry rather than judgement.
  • Use it less about evaluation and more about valuation.

5 Comments

  1. Yep I agree – the annual appraisal discussion is a joke – but so is the regular one if no consequences flow. From memory the stats show about 4 out of 10 hiring decisions r wrong – but depending on the legal framework that can take years to sort – meanwhile here’s my guide to appraisals http://bit.ly/1i23PxU

  2. I’m no HR expert but in my opinion, appraisals are doomed to fail because
    – humans are imperfect, many managers are worse;
    – it is almost never objective;
    – the dynamics is almost always a one-way communication, cookie cutting process, supervisor-knows-it-all, remuneration-tagged, performance-driven & not development friendly;
    – historical in nature;
    – used as a justification for remuneration decision;
    – no recourse or appeal;

    So, is there a better alternative? Again, I’ve never really thought about this seriously enough but could perhaps offer a few principles:
    – for any appraisal to be constructive & positive, remuneration / reward decision must be separately managed (another topic altogether);
    – it is time consuming but 360 appraisal is fairer than 180;
    – appraisal should be as real-time as possible instead retrospective;
    – personnel development & rewards are connected but yet separate matters.

    I’ve had my fair share of bad experiences & I’ve observed others too. Whenever possible I try to practice what I believe is meaningful. I use appraisals for feedbacks more than as evaluations (ie “How can we continue to co-work better?” instead of “How did he/she perform?”). My team members’ development is my paramount interests & challenge. Their output (positive or otherwise) is a byproduct. As for remuneration, I prefer to try to divide the pot equally as a start (I’m almost always in a team situation) & demerit clearly (hopefully as objectively as I humanly can) those who are non-contributing ones. This is usually in contradiction to corporate guidelines though. Also I struggle when others not within my management get rewarded more than they “deserve” but we don’t live in a perfect world & I can only do what I can. Irony is, my own supervisor may not treat me the same way.

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