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The How-To's of Effective Performance Appraisals

To many managers, performance appraisals are nothing more than a tedious chore. As a result, these managers overlook the problem-solving power of a properly conducted appraisal. Other managers view employee reviews as a test of their own supervisory capabilities; they often become fearful that they will not "measure up" in their employee's eyes.

Stress, anxiety, and fear often accompany performance appraisals both for the employee being reviewed and for the supervisor conducting the appraisal.

The end result of all these negative and ambivalent feelings is an employee review which is incomplete, sloppy, and ultimately ineffective. The simple truth is that by underestimating the inherent power of performance appraisals, many managers are neglecting a major aspect of their management roles. Understanding these feelings, overcoming them and administering effective appraisals are important to the success of any manager.

Why Are They Necessary?: Many times, managers do not take full advantage of performance appraisals simply because they are unaware of the appraisal's overall role in management. It is important to understand why performance appraisals are necessary to job situations: All employees need periodic discussions with their supervisors to determine the effectiveness of their performance. In addition, appraisals help supervisors insure that their own goals are being met.

Moreover, it is crucial for the evaluator to fully comprehend both the positive and negative effects of performance-appraisals. Discovering a step-by-step method to developing feasible performance appraisal strategies can help clarify appraisal situations for managers by adjusting their perspectives on the true importance of performance reviews. Only then can the appraisal be utilized effectively in problem-solving.

The First Step: Preparation: Preparation is the first step to any successful performance appraisal. Both the appraiser and the employee must participate in this preparation. Each participant must decide on specific instances—positive and negative—that are reflective of the employee's performance. Each must also plan to discuss specific accomplishments and how these accomplishments may be built upon in the future.

All appraisals must include each party's impressions of the worker's personal development (and what changes, if any, need to be made). In addition, changes may be required in the work environment, in shifts or in arrangements between the employee and other workers to accomplish future performance goals.

Setting the Scene: The next step is the actual meeting during which a discussion takes place between the supervisor and employee. The discussion needs to take place in the supervisor's work area. During the appraisal both players need to feel equal.

Although most appraisals take place while seated at the supervisor's, many mangers find it beneficial to sit facing the employee without a desk or barrier. This seating arrangement encourages a more relaxed atmosphere, one that often is welcomed and creates more open communication by both parties.

Getting the Point Across: At the beginning of the discussion, the supervisor needs to always begin by defining exactly what will be covered and in what manner. (Nothing is worse than a misunderstanding of intention in a performance appraisal situation). Any misunderstandings will only create obstacles and conflicts in the relationship that supervisors may have previously worked to break down. Furthermore, any misunderstanding may cause one or both parties to become distracted-a possible problem for any conversation, it is especially disrupting during an evaluation: Mark's boss Jane told him that she wanted to discuss his organization of the company's accounts payable system. Both prepared privately by listing Mark's achievements and future goals. When they met, Jane began by first discussing that the flow of work through accounts payable is smoother than before. Then she abruptly changed the subject, listing serious system abuse changes, Mark (understandably) became confused and upset. Jane should have invoked a more serious tone and perhaps given an overall review of the accounts payable system (instead of breaking the review into two parts).

An issue that needs to always be discussed, aside from work performance, is personal growth and development. It is important for the supervisor to listen for both the emotional and logical content of an employee's responses. Also, after each point the employee makes, the supervisor needs to summarize and give feedback. The evaluator must also evaluate any points he or she does not understand. Only the speaker knows what he or she is feeling, and a supervisor's attempt at understanding will make the employee feel that the supervisor is really listening.

Listen and Learn: Active listening is the supervisor's primary role in an employee's self-appraisal. When the employee has completed his or her self-appraisal, the supervisor needs to respond in a constructive, positive manner-mentioning first the agreeable points, then the disagreeable points. During this discourse, it is important that the supervisor be non-judgmental and supportive. Even if the supervisor disagrees with a point the employee made, the supervisor needs to not to be overpowering. (Doing so will only cause defensiveness, a barrier to be avoided at all costs).

When discussing what is considered an employee's poor performance, the employee must be encouraged to work with management to solve the problem. Positioning such problem solving in "we" or "our" frames of reference (instead of to "you") invites the employee to feel as if the supervisor is on his or her side. Finally, set specific goals to be reviewed again within a specified period of time.

Defining Performance Problems: Often, appraisals do not follow such a clear-cut path: Frequently, supervisors have trouble defining a problem with a employee's performance. Such nebulous problems can include not working independently, a lack of enthusiasm or repeated mistakes. How can a manager you accomplish what needs to be done without having to direct such employees every step of the way? Why do some employees really care about their jobs while others do only what they are told (and then only if their supervisor stands over them)?

The symptoms of the careless employee are well documented: They come to work, punch the clock and put in the required time. They "go through the motions" to the extent they are pushed. Most managers probably think they have heard all of the excuses for poor performance. Any time an employee does (or does not do) something that management thinks must (or must not) be done, there is a performance problem. Before jumping to conclusions about poor performance, the supervisor must make sure he or she is on solid ground, and that he or she can be specific about the problem.

The more clearly a problem is defined, the easier it will be to find a solution. Not understanding what the supervisor considers to be "acceptable performance" is a common problem for employees. A statement like "John Snider has a bad attitude" does not contain specific information about actual or expected performance. A desired performance statement might be: "No packaging boxes with dented corners are to get out of the plant." A statement regarding actual performance might be: "John allows 5% of all boxes to get out of the plant with dented corners." If you were John's supervisor you would know exactly what you need to talk to John about — eliminating the 5 percent defective boxes.

Whose Fault is It?: When faced with any performance problem, the supervisor needs to realize that there are only two causes of performance problems: deficiencies in knowledge and deficiencies in evaluation.

Deficiencies in knowledge are most easily identified. No matter how motivated they are or how hard employees try, they cannot do their jobs efficiently if they do not have the appropriate knowledge or training. A knowledge deficiency is the supervisor's problem, not the employee's problem. It is the manager's responsibility to make sure workers have the necessary knowledge of do their jobs-and that they have demonstrated the skills to do the work.

Presentation is generally the solution to knowledge deficiency problems. It might consist of formal training programs, on-the-job training, or individual coaching and instructing by supervisors. Follow up after training, to insure that the worker fully comprehends the skills and is confident with their newly gained knowledge.

Deficiencies in execution arise when an employee possesses the skills and the knowledge to properly perform but for some reason does not. Unlike a deficiency in knowledge, a deficiency in execution often (but not always) is the employee's fault.

The following are four methods for solving execution deficiency problems. Make sure you try each one before you decide to take disciplinary action.

Set Objectives: Set individual objectives that are specific to each individual's performance. (Define these objectives in numbers if possible). If a employee does not know how well or poorly they are performing, they will not change their performance.

Provide Feedback: If a worker determines that it does not matter whether a job is done correctly, soon it will be done poorly. The supervisor needs to arrange consequences so that employees know that a job done well makes a difference-to them, to their supervisor, and to the company.

Remove Obstacles: The supervisor is responsible for making sure his or her workers have all the time, tools, equipment and materials necessary to do the job and that nothing prevents them from doing their jobs correctly.

If workers receive conflicting instructions, if they get higher priorities, or if poor working conditions interfere with doing their job, they may be unable to do their work properly.

Eliminate Punishment: Eliminating punishment consists of making sure the results of doing a good job are positive and rewarding rather than negative and punishing. If individuals figure out that doing a good job leads to punishing results, they will avoid doing their jobs properly.

A wise man once said, "People will behave just about as well as you expect them to." Sometimes, when supervisors are aware of a non-cooperative attitude, they begin to expect non-cooperation. Guard against this attitude in yourself.

Expect cooperation! When you assume that people want to cooperate, they are more likely to do so. After all, deep down inside all of us is a small desire to be the teacher's pet. Getting someone to succeed and be in the favor of the teacher is just a matter of removing obstacles that obstruct a path to success. Generating a successful performance is the true and final benefit of an employee review.

Case Studies — Strategies That Have Worked: Even after you have applied the four methods just described you may have some people that seem to "defy" your efforts to help them. Summarized below are some additional strategies other supervisors have found helpful when dealing with employees that require constant supervision.

Indifferent Worker ("Standard" Variety): Although these workers never break rules or openly cause trouble, they make it clear they are completely indifferent to the job and the department. They do only what is required, reject efforts to arouse their enthusiasm and passively resist change. In short, they are just not "with it".

Persist until you find something that interests these workers. Once you discover a topic or area of interest they respond to, ask questions about it and offer opinions. Also, concentrate on future objectives. This approach will enable you to develop the first threads of a relationship with these workers. It also provides them with some recognition — something they probably feel they are not getting on the job.

As you grow closer to indifferent workers, try to induce them to see your point of view about the department. At some point, you might place them within groups of highly-motivated workers.

Arrange for specific steps to meet specific objectives. After a while, they may begin to understand why others are enthusiastic and willing. A willing worker's job interest will prove contagious.

Indifferent Worker (Who Lacks Self-Confidence): Now and then, there are employees who have real aptitude and ability, yet they are unable to do a really good job due to a lack of self-confidence. Usually they depend on others for detailed instructions. They hesitate to take initiative, are sensitive to ridicule or criticism and may be quite shy. Often, they are like this only because they have not come under the influence of a supervisor who understands them and can help them gain self-confidence.

Start by keeping these workers on jobs they can do at least fairly well (and which they have shown they can do to their own satisfaction). At the same time, avoid making others in the group carry more of the load than they should. Emphasize teamwork. Always let the employee know you are willing to help.

Whatever the assignment, make sure it is carried through to successful completion. This will help the workers avoid a feeling of frustration. By helping them realize they can succeed, you build self-reliance and confidence. Eventually, they may come to cooperatively freely and willingly with others of the department.