A Reappraisal of the Performance Appraisal

Performance appraisals are a critical tool for managing employees, but they often end up creating more harm than good. Through a review of industry and academic research plus professional experience, I believe there are several reasons that account for this phenomenon.

  1. Reviews are perceived as critiques wherein employees are put on the defensive and often see their career under threat.
  2. Due to lack of training managers delivering the review are not very skilled at providing useful feedback.
  3. Given the fast paced, collaborative way creative work is done, I believe most managers have only a partial appreciation of their employee’s total contribution, thus hindering a fulsome review of individual staff members.
  4. Finally, and most important, traditional performance reviews are backwards looking assessments that focus heavily on deficits and shortcomings!

It all adds up to a discouraged, anxious, less productive group of workers, unsure of how to improve their performance and contribute effectively to their team, and organization. In fact, a recent global survey by Gallup research indicates only 2 in 10 employees agree that their performance is evaluated in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.

Gallup’s research also indicates that this deficit-based approach to performance reviews is demoralizing and counterproductive. Only 14% of employees feel inspired to improve through this process, and about 33% of cases experience a decline in performance due to the prevalence of negative feedback. Not the outcomes you would hope for when trying to help improve performance.

So, what’s causing all this unhappiness? In my experience as a creative team leader, and consultant as well as results from numerous academic studies, focusing solely on weaknesses puts the employee on the defensive, making the review feel personal and punitive. Managers, sensing the employee’s unease, try to soften the blow, but it often backfires, eroding trust and progress.

Thankfully, social, and organizational psychologists have developed a more positive approach. Instead of dwelling on deficits, they encourage managers and leaders to focus on strengths as a starting point for improvement. It’s called a Feed Forward Interview (FFI). As the name suggests, this tactic involves conducting proactive and forward-looking conversations with members of your team, with the explicit goal of supporting and developing employees while still addressing areas that need improvement.

During these ‘interviews’ managers ask individual employees to recall their work-related moments of success and happiness to create a positive emotional spiral during the interview (or review) process. By identifying moments of success and highlighting positive attributes, managers provide support and encouragement rather than the traditional (Kluger, 2010)

Now, let’s dive into some specific techniques to make your performance appraisals a lot more effective and uplifting:

  • Demonstrate empathy and curiosity: Rather than rundown a checklist of issues, approach the review with curiosity. Ask open-ended questions that encourage your staff to participate fully in the conversation. For example, rather than state your opinion, try asking a few of the following questions:

a. “I’d love to hear more about your experience with the recent project. What did you find most challenging, and what strategies did you use to overcome those challenges?”

b. “In your opinion, what were the key highlights of your accomplishments over the past six months? Is there anything you feel particularly proud of that we might have missed?”

c. “What aspects of your role do you find the most fulfilling and enjoyable? Conversely, are there any areas that you believe could benefit from further development or improvement?”

d. “Let’s discuss your preferred working style and environment. Are there any adjustments we can make to enhance your productivity and job satisfaction?”

Remember, the goal is to create an open and safe environment where your staff feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas. By asking open-ended questions, you encourage them to reflect on their experiences and contribute more fully to the conversation.

  • Use performance reviews as a method of challenging your employee: To help your top performers grow, challenge them with stretch assignments to keep them engaged and satisfied with their role. Research indicates that doing so helps with retention and productivity.
  • Avoid reducing an employee’s work to a single number: Most performance appraisals use numerical ratings scales, a reductive technique that often offends employees. When employees see their work minimized to a single number that defines their performance, whether it is a rating or a ranking, their focus shifts from how to improve their performance to whether their manager is qualified to judge their performance, calling into question the validity of the review itself (Gallup, 2018).
  • Be a Coach, not a Critic: Your role as a manager isn’t just about fixing your staff; it’s about providing support and opportunities for growth.
  • Celebrate Wins (Big & Small): In my experience as a creative team leader, recognizing, and celebrating wins, whether major victories or incremental gains, reinforces  a positive work culture that is essential for achieving team and organization wide objectives. It’s critical to focus on what’s going well to improve business results without relying solely on external incentives.

There you have it – a positive approach to performance appraisals that will not only make your employees happier but also boost productivity and results. Remember, it’s all about building on strengths and fostering growth.