Are you a manager or leader who dreads doing annual performance appraisals? If so, you’re definitely not alone. Many current evaluation systems are demoralizing: They don’t get across much information of value, often because they’re so focused on past actions that they provide no support for future growth and contributions. Plus, because everyone dislikes doing appraisals, they’re often done in a rush or completed late—and focus only on what happened in the last two months or seem short and sketchy because some necessary documentation is missing. All appraisals really seem to accomplish is to freak employees out.
But depending on how your organization deals with bureaucratic strictures, there may be ways to conduct appraisals that actually work better than whatever system you’re now using—or pretending to use. Recently, I worked with a CEO—someone who would rather avoid reviews but knows they’re important—on how his leadership team could get more value from the process than they have before. What follows is a very simple approach, but if you keep it in mind, even as you use your full-blown system, your team members may feel like they’ve gotten something real out of the discussions this year.
Start Prepping Early
Preparation is always key. It’s helpful to create a written draft of the various points you want to make, so you don’t forget anything important. Include a positioning statement on how the organization has done over the past year, where it is going, and more specifically, what you see for the year ahead, which will create context for everything else you want to say.
Keep Track of Successes
Plan to acknowledge progress and accomplishment in all of the goals or outcomes you’ve asked for. If someone has performed well consistently for multiple years in a row, it makes sense to say something like, “It’s been another great year, and here are a handful of things that stood out to me.” Be sure to express gratitude: “You’ve continued to deliver at a really high level/really made progress in this area/done a great job accomplishing these things we needed. I appreciate what you’ve been doing for our customers/brand/team.”
You may ask employees to give you self-assessments in writing in advance, but that can be scary if folks don’t know what you’d like to see. It might be better simply to ask, “What else stood out to you?” And then listen attentively, nodding or taking notes, because it’s beneficial for them to remember what they felt was good about the previous year and to share with you other things they’re proud of and want you to know. And if you agree with your employees, you can add their additional points to your notes.
Look Back and Look Ahead
Once you’ve acknowledged and agreed on a list of accomplishments for the last year, you can segue to expectations for the next year. “Now, in the next period, I would like to see [whatever the next stage is].” Or, if there’s no connection between this year’s work and next year’s goals, you can acknowledge the accomplishment and mark it: “I hope you understand how valuable/helpful/on-target your work has been. Now let’s talk about the coming year.” And you can explain: “There’s a new area in which I’d like you to do XYZ because it will contribute even more.” Or: “I’d like you to consider learning a new skill, like A or B.”
Then, identify their growth path for them: “Here’s the next step I see for you.” Or: “Here’s something new that would be helpful to me/the organization that I’d like you to take on.”
Let Them Go Their Own Way
In my client’s case, one member of his team was doing great work but not the way he would have handled things, even though the outcomes were the ones he wanted. Rather than undercutting the employee’s performance or capabilities in any way, since she had clearly been effective, I suggested he express personal curiosity: “You’re getting fantastic results and I can’t figure out how you’re getting them. Would you let me in on your processes? You’ve accomplished so much, but I can’t see how it’s happening.” It turned out that the junior employee just had a very different style, and although the CEO might have preferred seeing his own style in operation, he had to agree that the team member was doing quite well as she was.
What would not be okay to say would be, “Thanks for the fantastic results, and now I’d like you to stop getting them your way and use my way.” If someone is out of compliance with regulations or rules, you may have to coach them to shift their behavior, but that should be happening while they’re on the job more than in the performance review. In the performance review, though, you might reference how well they adapted to the coaching and new instructions and thank them for their compliance.
Compile Your Notes
After the discussion, beef up your original draft by adding notes on any other topics you discussed as well as the employee’s remarks. Then you can put both the draft and the additions in an email that summarizes what you each said and what you agreed upon going forward. That becomes your record. It should reflect the other emails you regularly send to employees that confirm your discussions about their work.
Keep in mind that the success of any appraisal depends on how much work gets done in advance, so if your deadline is five days away, only read these suggestions for awareness and plan to do better next year, rather than trying to toss out your current system to make changes now.
Onward and upward —