The death of the appraisal
Exclusively for Portfolio North, Ian P Buckingham; thought leading author and the CIPD’s People Management magazine’s #HRFixer, shares his thoughts on a thorny issue for business leaders.

Exclusively for Portfolio North, Ian P Buckingham; thought leading author and the CIPD’s People Management magazine’s #HRFixer, shares his thoughts on a thorny issue for business leaders.

Times are tough. Any business founder or forward- thinking CEO will tell you that cultivating, expanding and then sustaining a business brings many challenges. These are amplified during periods of perpetual pressure.  But why does the simple act of plugging employees into the core goals of the business present as a dark and troublesome chore, just when you need your team to step up?

It’s tricky assigning goals to people for many reasons. With five generations working together, many employees resent alignment, authority and accountability and especially don’t like to be told what to do. Yet decent performance has very little to do with a good “telling to” .

The golden thread connecting business goals to individual objectives really should be what entices employees to go the extra mile, the stuff that could make the critical difference to the business.  But why do employees hate appraisals? And why does the very concept of a performance review or process give so many managers sleepless nights?

Well, the simple answer is: they’re not skilled or confident enough to operate the process properly. The competencies required are seldom cultivated or taught and the process becomes laden with negativity, especially when employees don’t have the same skin in the game as their line managers looking to set their goals.

As recently as last year, a major global consultancy firm claimed that over half the business leaders they consulted were considering abandoning their performance review process completely.

When pushed, they gave reasons like:

  1.  “It’s not worth the time needed to fill out the forms”
  2.  “The process leads to divisive and negative conversations that undermine morale”
  3.  “ Younger employees especially, struggle with any hint of authority

As a consequence, some high-profile organisations are experimenting with letting performance reviews slide.

While it may be trendy to bash appraisals, is it fair or even wise to undermine the process?

In my view, it’s madness, especially now.

So let me (briefly) debunk the excuses:

1. Time: It’s no surprise to me that the same leaders who blame process and can’t find the time often complain how hard it is to attract and retain employees or to cultivate a performance culture. Their behaviour is clearly the challenge, not the forms. What is more important than focus and encouragement, improvement and adjustment?

Their leaders need to re-frame the process; ensure every employee has clear and evolving goals and objectives and that they review them regularly with their line manager in short, focused sessions rather than treating it as an annual chore.

2. Negativity: Feedback and coaching skills don’t come naturally to most. If your process is driving cynicism, you’re not doing it right. Consider training or leadership coaching based on simple principles.

3. Authority: Again, positioning is key and this reaction suggests that your line managers need some development support. Accountability is a non-negotiable for all employees and if communicated appropriately, it should be a source of recognition and appreciation, a positive that bonds and inspires.

Companies don’t exist solely for the benefits of their employees. Their purpose is to deliver the vision and objectives of the organisation. Hopefully their goals are balanced enough to include social and colleague metrics and will predominantly be linked to all-important customer and shareholder satisfaction. Even third-sector institutions get how important balance is. The needs of colleagues, owners, customers and other stakeholders shouldn’t be mutually exclusive and won’t be seen that way, if the leaders are doing their job well.

The performance management system is a critical people process. It should help create and then cultivate the golden thread between corporate vision and employee contracts to drive performance, recognition and reward. So it’s not only unwise to ignore PM. It’s dangerously irresponsible.

We’ve recently helped one of the region’s largest building organisations re-construct their  leadership development programme on the back of their approach to performance management. They’ve won awards for the resulting process. Their directors credit the resulting behaviour as the primary reason for their counter-cyclical positive performance as a business

So if you’re tempted by the dark lure of the cynical chatter, try concentrating on re-engineering the way your leaders engage with others about their performance instead.

As their highly-rated HRD is fond of saying:

“It ain’t what you do but the way that you do it”.

How are your results?

Ian is the Strategy Partner and Consultancy lead of Mosaic Partners, a leading-edge people development agency based in the North East, helping clients across sectors make the most of their leadership challenges and opportunities.

Posted 21st November 2023

Reading Time 2-3 minutes

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