Performance Management & Appraisal

It has been known for decades that formal appraisal systems can do more harm than good. Douglas McGregor pointed out as long ago as 1957 that managers are uncomfortable when they are put in the position of 'playing God'.    Here are a couple of extracts from his Harvard Business Review article. 

There is always some discomfort involved in telling a subordinate he is not doing well. The individual who is “coasting” during the few years prior to retirement after serving his company competently for many years presents a special dilemma to the boss who is preparing to interview him.

Nor does a shift to a form of group appraisal solve the problem. Though the group method tends to have greater validity and, properly administered, can equalize varying standards of judgment, it does not ease the difficulty inherent in the interview. In fact, the superior’s discomfort is often intensified when he must base his interview on the results of a group discussion of the subordinate’s worth. Even if the final judgments have been his, he is not free to discuss the things said by others which may have influenced him.

The conventional approach, unless handled with consummate skill and delicacy, constitutes something dangerously close to a violation of the integrity of the personality. Managers are uncomfortable when they are put in the position of “playing God.” The respect we hold for the inherent value of the individual leaves us distressed when we must take responsibility for judging the personal worth of a fellow man. Yet the conventional approach to performance appraisal forces us not only to make such judgments and to see them acted upon but also to communicate them to those we have judged. Small wonder we resist!

The modern emphasis upon the manager as a leader who strives to help his subordinates achieve both their own and the company’s objectives is hardly consistent with the judicial role demanded by most appraisal plans. If the manager must put on his judicial hat occasionally, he does it reluctantly and with understandable qualms. Under such conditions, it is unlikely that the subordinate will be any happier with the results than will the boss. It will not be surprising, either, if he fails to recognize that he has been told where he stands.

Of course, managers cannot escape making judgments about subordinates. Without such evaluations, salary and promotion policies cannot be administered sensibly. But are subordinates like products on an assembly line, to be accepted or rejected as a result of an inspection process? 

Commenting in 2019, Twitter's Flip Chart Rick pointed out:- 

'Much of the design and re-design of performance management processes in the intervening 6 decades has been about trying to manage our discomfort. The more process and bureaucracy we put around it, the more we hope to shield ourselves from the emotional pain  Management fads and fashions come and go. Ten ratings or five? Or four? Competencies, capabilities, objectives, frameworks, all trying to do one thing. Make this whole thing look objective so we can hide our discomfort. None of it has really worked, though it has cost a lot!'

So ...

Despite what is said above, most readers of this web page will be forced to deliver or receive formal appraisals is delivered within a structured system over which they have only limited control.  Here is some advice which might help.

First, it is important to remember that we all have different mixtures of strengths, experiences and weaknesses.  Managers should not make a big deal if the appraisal system forces them to mention weaknesses that may be quite irrelevant in the current job.  Equally, the person being appraised should not get too upset if a weakness is pointed out- or misunderstood - in an otherwise positive appraisal. 

But it is often the case that a single weakness can be a major problem, and this needs to be spelt out and addressed.  Too many senior officials have reached their current positions despite being inexperienced or poor managers, simply because they score well when it comes to analytical ability and the like.  It would be much better for all concerned if such weaknesses were addressed early in such careers, and regarded as an absolute bar to further progress.

Second, values are important.  Your staff's behaviour will to a great extent be conditioned by the values that are communicated - mainly informally - by you and your senior colleagues.  if you don't already have a values statement - and maybe if you do - then you could do much worse than copy this one from Netflix.

Third, the formal annual appraisal is essentially one-way communication. The process might begin with self-appraisal (although I have my doubts about the effectiveness of this approach) but it is essentially an opportunity for the appraiser to be honest about how the other person has appeared to them over the preceding period. The person being appraised might well feel that the appraiser is wrong, and it is fine to discuss this, but if the manager is unconvinced then it shouldn't lead to lengthy debate.  Any difference of opinion can be resolved over the coming months as the staff member demonstrates their true ability to their manager. There should be no question of the appraisal being ‘agreed’ by the person being appraised, or subject to any form of appeal.

It is sensible, however, to show draft appraisals to the person on whom you are reporting, for you might well have forgotten some achievement, or you might have expressed something in an upsetting way. But the report should nevertheless remain your honest assessment of the other person, in comparison to other civil servants.

I strongly recommend that you read my separate advice on Leading and Managing Policy Teams.  See Annex B in particular for advice on how to deal with accusations of bullying and harassment, including those that arise during performance management

Fourth, appraisals should usually lead to action, whether by way of improved communication between manager and managed, or changes to objectives and expectations, or further training and development.

Fifth, keep it simple!  No-one remembers the detail of an appraisal more than a few hours after reading it.  When I ran a small department, we categorised staff as very effective, effective or not effective, and this worked very well, especially if allowance was explicitly made for those who were in the process of gaining experience.

Finally, it is better if appraisals are supplemented by ‘upward feedback’ or even ‘360-degree feedback’. There are several good systems that facilitate these processes but it must be stressed that they need to be carefully managed if they are not to do more harm than good.  They should certainly not amount to ‘upward appraisal’. Managers should want to know what messages their staff believe that they are receiving, in particular through the managers’ behaviour. But it is not for staff to tell managers whether the messages are appropriate, or whether the manager is regarded as doing a good job.  There may be some saints who would respond enthusiastically to criticism from inexperienced staff, but I fear that I and many others are not amongst them – at least until I have worked with my critics for a good long time.

Martin Stanley

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