Performance appraisals are an ongoing process

March 28, 2002
By: Terry White

If you make continuous feedback a part of your managerial style, the annual performance appraisal becomes and affirmation of a positive working relationship instead of a drudgery merely to be tolerated.

The annual employee performance appraisal is an event that creates a great deal of anxiety in both the supervisor and subordinate.

Much of the emotion concerning this event centers around a fear of the unknown, usually on both sides of the desk. Employees often feel uncomfortable because they have not received much feedback during the evaluation period or because they are unsure about the performance criteria on which they are being evaluated.

Managers, on the other hand, sometimes are equally squeamish with their role as judge, the subjectivity of the evaluation, or their employee's possible reaction. A combination of these emotional triggers often leads to a less-than-satisfactory result for everyone involved. It's no wonder that performance reviews often are defined as an event at which managers get no sleep the night before and employees get no sleep the night after.

So if performance reviews so often are messy, uncomfortable, and unsatisfactory, what can be done about it?

The Performance Management Process

First of all, managers can make appraisals a working component of a performance management process, not just an event that, like a visit to the dentist, everyone is glad to be done with when it's over.

Ninety-day Goals. One way to do this is to set clear goals ahead of time so that both parties know what the ground rules are as they work through the evaluation period. While many managers prefer to set annual goals, a concept that appears to be gaining favor is the 90-day goal standard-every 90 days, managers and subordinates devise a new set of goals.

The value of 90-day goals is that they create some momentum by making people work in shorter time frames. Annual goals lie so far in the future most of the time that both managers and employees lose track of them because of more pressing issues.

When goals are set on a 12-month timetable, people tend to agree to them and then promptly get back to work. This is natural-routine work always takes precedence over nonroutine work, and before anyone realizes what happened, six months have gone by and no one has thought about the annual goals. In fact, organizational priorities typically change so significantly in that period that those annual goals are not as relevant as when they were set.

In contrast, the 90-day process ensures some formal discussion between managers and employees at least every three months about their priorities.

No Surprises. One of the best rules to follow is the principle of no surprises-in other words, if it wasn't discussed during the performance evaluation period, it will not appear on the performance appraisal.

Not only does this reduce the anxiety associated with the review, it tends to build a stronger relationship between the supervisor and subordinate. A practical rationale for following this rule is that any surprise sprung on an employee damages the credibility of the manager. After all, if it's important enough to put on the review form, why isn't it important enough to mention beforehand?

Almost all managers can recall clearly a moment in their careers when they had a "surprise moment" in a performance review-it can have a long-lasting impact. If one of the objectives of management is to improve employee performance, it seems odd to do something that triggers a bunch of natural defenses and makes it that much more difficult to achieve that goal.

Feedback. Feedback sometimes is referred to as the Breakfast of Champions®, and it is a key to creating a performance management system as opposed to an annual review event.

It is best to develop a system that allows the manager to let the paper remember so that the manager can forget. Keeping some type of file that tracks both positive and negative events throughout the year for each employee allows a manager to evaluate the entire 12-month period, not just the past 60 days. This "recentness error" is prevalent in many evaluation ratings because everyone tends to give more weight to something that happened recently.

However, some type of system that keeps track of critical incidents over the entire evaluation period helps managers avoid this trap. Managers should offer employees performance feedback as soon as they can after the fact, be as specific as they can, and describe the impact of a certain action on the department or organization. This approach can strengthen the feedback's influence on future performance.

Preparation. Preparation is key to a successful performance review. If a manager follows the 90-day principle or has a good history of providing feedback, preparation is a cake walk.

Managing performance is an ongoing habit that makes an annual review a nonevent as that annual meeting becomes more of a formalization of the existing relationship between a manager and a subordinate.

The Evaluation Itself

As managers plan the appraisal, they should remember that they are evaluating two things-behavior and results. Results often are very specific and measurable. The other side of the equation is the behavior that employees exhibit as they go about achieving those results.

Behavior is considered more subjective than quantifiable, and thus less important. However, in today's environment, individual behavior often relates directly to the ability to produce results. For instance, a manager who produces above-average results but mistreats people in the process probably won't survive in business these days.

And because behavior is more subjective, more frequent feedback on behavior is required to keep both managers and employees on the same page. Tying results and behavior together in a 90-day goal-setting session can be quite effective in terms of connecting the dots, as it were, for both parties. While behavior often is considered somewhat difficult to measure, managers should make every effort to ensure that what employees do is relevant to achieving overall department or company goals.

Clarity and agreement on specific, short-term, 90-day goals; frequent, direct, and timely feedback; and a solid system that measures both results and behavior can help to produce outcomes that improve performance levels for both managers and employees. In so doing, the manager will have a direct and positive impact on overall results, and the employee will understand more clearly where he or she stands in terms of overall performance.

And it ought to make the night before and night after the review a lot more comfortable for everyone.

Terry White

Contributing Writer