Appraisals: Turning a Wince into a Smile

Article by Jamie Cleaver

Getting the best out of appraisals, either as an appraiser, or as an appraisee.

WELCOME to the third piece in the current series aimed at helping engineers develop their professional skills. Here we are going to consider how we might get the best out of appraisals, either as an appraiser, or as an appraisee.

Often, at the start of an appraisal skills workshop I ask people for the first thing that comes into their mind when they hear the word “appraisal”. The floodgates open, and I am deluged with words such as frustration, anxiety, tedious, time-wasting, burden, stress, necessary evil, awkward, and pointless. Then there are a few positive associations with words such as opportunity, affirming, constructive. However, the negative comments significantly outweigh the positive ones. There is clearly something wrong with this picture. The overwhelming negative response triggered by the word appraisal suggests that there may be scope for improvement.

How shall we proceed here? Perhaps the best thing to do is to briefly describe the typical appraisal process, its purpose, and benefits. We can then consider the potential sources of people’s negative responses, and propose ways of turning an appraisal wince into a smile.  

What is an appraisal?

In case you’ve missed it, an appraisal or performance review is part of a bigger picture called performance management. The intention of performance management is to support strategic long-term business goals. Part of this involves the appraisal of individual employees. The most common approach to appraisals, certainly in the engineering sector, seems to be management by objectives.  Appraisers and appraisees agree objectives for the coming months. At the end of the period they review the extent to which the objectives have been met or exceeded, before setting new objectives. The review process is often accompanied by gathering feedback on the appraisee’s performance, which is then shared and discussed. If you want to dig deeper into performance management, I suggest you visit the website of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

The concept of appraisals is full of honourable intentions. It is an opportunity to value and motivate staff, identify strengths, and help them develop new skills and gain experience. These honourable intentions are frequently not happening, going by the negative barrage I receive during my word association activity. Let’s return to this, as it provides a clue to the problems and leads us to propose some solutions.

Disappointment, confrontation, and burden

Inspection of the negative word association response reveals three possible sources of negativity. The first source aligns with words such as frustration, pointless, waste of time. This indicates that people feel a disconnect between their expectations of the appraisal process and what actually happens. Let’s refer to this source as appraisal disappointment.  Further conversations reveal for example that plans for appraisee development and increased responsibility do not materialise. The reasons for this may be complex, and may result from a failure at an organisational level, an insincere appraiser, unrealistic expectations of the appraisee, or unavoidable changes in circumstances. Whatever the underlying causes, it should come as no surprise that appraisal disappointment is frustrating and demotivating for the appraiser and the appraisee.

The second source of negativity in the word-association activity aligns with anxiety, stress, and awkward. Further conversations reveal that people can feel judged, or uncomfortable with giving and receiving feedback. They struggle with difficult conversations that relate to performance and future prospects. Let’s refer to this source as appraisal confrontation.

The third source of word-association negativity relates to tedious, burden, and necessary evil. Again, further conversations reveal that people struggle with the administrative load and time required to engage with the appraisal process. Many people feel they are working flat out and just don’t have the bandwidth to devote to appraisals. We shall refer to this source as appraisal burden.

Appraisal smiles

Now we have exposed the sources of appraisal winces, let’s look at practical things we can do to turn these winces into appraisal smiles.

  • Approach appraisals as a continuous process: This is essential. If appraisals are considered only for a couple of weeks each year, objectives easily get forgotten along with the benefits and purpose of the process. Appraisal conversations between appraiser and appraisee should be frequent, discussing feedback, objectives, and any operational changes. Quarterly formal reviews might help, but regular informal conversations over coffee might be more effective. Approaching appraisals as a continuous process would help counteract appraisal disappointment and confrontation.
  • Manage expectations: Some appraisers get questioned about pay increases and promotion prospects, and some appraisees expect these issues to be “on the table” for discussion. These can contribute to appraisal confrontation. It’s useful to be clear up-front about the mechanisms for pay awards and promotions. Any other expectations around training, experience and responsibility should also be aired up-front, thereby diffusing appraisal disappointment. Again, approaching appraisals as a continuous conversation would help in this regard.
  • Encourage appraisee-led appraisals: Let’s try to move away from the mind-set of appraisals being imposed on staff by the system. An appraisee will feel empowered and motivated if they are encouraged to evaluate their own performance and set their own objectives. The appraiser can do this by adopting a coaching approach, asking open questions, offering fresh perspectives, and providing a reality check. A certain amount of assertiveness is useful here for the appraiser and appraisee. We discussed assertive behaviour earlier in this series.
  • Prepare well: Good preparation by the appraiser and the appraisee shows a strong commitment to the process with the intention of a positive and constructive outcome. Good preparation will be assisted by treating appraisals as a continuous process, (see above).  
  • Develop some skills in setting and evaluating objectives: The SMART mnemonic (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-based) is a good starting point. Bear in mind that working to objectives can be constraining, and can encourage people to be risk averse. This might be problematic in organisations that rely on innovation.

All the above suggestions may help with appraisal disappointment and confrontation. Surely, they will add to the sense of burden that accompanies appraisals for many people. Well, maybe, but by diffusing appraisal disappointment and confrontation, I am inviting you to press a re-set button on appraisals, turning winces into smiles and seeing a positive benefit on individuals, teams, and organisations. Any increase in engagement could be viewed as time well spent, rather than a burden.

I hope this has given you some food for thought about how you might improve the appraisal process for yourself and for others around you.

Article by Jamie Cleaver

Freelance trainer and facilitator, IChemE course leader on Mentoring for Chemical Engineers

Jamie Cleaver is a chemical engineer who works as a freelance trainer and facilitator, helping engineers and scientists to develop professional skills related to communication. He runs workshops on various aspects of communication, creativity and mentoring for companies and universities. He also specialises in explaining chemical engineering to non-chemical engineers. In his spare time, he lectures chemical engineering to undergraduates.

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