Appraisals, performance reviews, PDRs – call ‘em what you will. Anyone who’s worked for a company of almost any size has experienced the teeth-curling discomfort of the Annual Awkward Conversation. So does a business really have to have them?
I’d say no. No need at all.
Feel free to ditch the complicated preparation forms; the never-really-works scoring systems; the cringe-worthy, falsely-bright pretend conversation in the smallest meeting room. Do so with no regrets and immediately. But don’t stop reading there…
You can ditch the formal PDR scheme any time you like. But you can never lose its key content. The good news is, the key content does not have to be delivered in the form of a phony annual review – it can be done in a much more informal – and a much more effective – format.
The reason most large organisations introduced appraisals 30-odd years ago is that managers don’t like to have conversations about performance improvement, and they don’t like refusing people opportunities for promotion or development. So they weren’t doing it. An annual appraisal, with SMART objectives and reams of proof-and-evidence paperwork, made sure that line managers had the conversation, with the necessary content, at least once each year. Good idea, in principle. Unfortunately, by making it a Significant Annual Event, this process made it a weird and uncomfortable experience for all involved.
We don’t need to do it that way anymore.
My five suggestions for replacing PDRs – and why – are:
1. Meet little and often
The line manager and each staff member need to meet regularly in private to discuss progress. Ideally, that should be once a month – and I’m only talking the time it takes to have a coffee together for most of these occasions. How much is that out of your working month?
The “agenda” should be clear – this is not just a chat about the kids or whether "Steve Bruce is A Good Thing". It is also not about tactics – such as progress updates on the employee’s short-term tasks. Both the line manager and the employee should take care not to use this as an opportunity to save up comments or questions on tactical matters.
Instead, it should cover: how much progress has been made this month towards longer-term business and personal goals (more below); how the employee is enjoying their work; and any behavioural or attitudinal faux pas that need nipping in the bud.
Little and often conversations like this mean that the employee can’t go too far down the wrong road without being redirected. If any potentially-concerning behaviour is starting, it can be explored for causes and solutions before it gets to be a problem. And both parties get a regular reminder on where this business is going and what it values.
In addition, most people – especially the 90s-born Millennials, it seems – relish the regular attention paid to their development. People appreciate someone looking out for them, stopping them from going wrong and being interested in their future. If you show that you care about them they’ll more than reward your time-investment
2. Look forward
If the conversation in this meeting needs to correct behaviour – anything from slow progress towards goals to sloppy time-keeping – the line manager needs to focus on the future. It’s about making it clear that this is not an analysis of what’s going wrong, but help to get better in future. This approach is so much more motivating than dwelling on old sins. Indeed, what we don’t want is that this meeting becomes The Monthly Negative Experience, simply re-enacting the old Annual event, just more frequently.
So be ready to discuss with what action or behaviour is required next month. And even better, prepare to get the employee to suggest their own action plan for what needs to be done differently. Do this by…..
3. Coach, don’t tell
Line managers should always be coaches. A coaching approach – where you ask the employee what they think needs doing – should be your daily default setting. The more you coach, encouraging the employee to suggest solutions and make their own informed decisions, the better the employee performs.
So wherever possible, take a coaching stance in the monthly meeting. You can keep control of the performance agenda, but all you need to do is state the goal – “I think you’ll need some shorter lunch breaks next month” – and then ask the employee for their ideas about how they’ll plan to achieve this.
4. Keep written quantified objectives
The old-school appraisal systems were very big on written targets and objectives. There are several darned good reasons for this, such as, at one end of the scale, a written objective supports and polices behaviour, giving the employee a tangible goal to achieve which they can then break down into step-on-the-way tasks. At the other end of the scale, frankly, objectives are there to ensure very weak employees can be removed from the organisation without too much delay.
Therefore, we still need them.
What we don’t need is the old false timing, where objectives had to be annual. Instead, we can set timed objectives for a quarter (no less, or it really is tactical); or for three years.
Objectives can be set for actions that contribute to the development or running of the business; for project completion; or for behavioural or attitudinal change. They always need to have attached measures, though; and they always need to be written down.
By all means encourage the employee to make notes on the outcomes of the meeting, if that’s his/her preference, but keep and share your own written record too. Again, no need for complicated paperwork – just dated updates-against-target emailed to the employee.
Without written objectives and measures, this monthly meeting has no real appraisal or PDR content and is simply a corny old “catch-up”.
5. Never, never cancel
One last golden rule. Never, never cancel.
Think about it: if you cancel a meeting that’s about an employee’s achievements, progress, support, development, and direction, you’ve effectively said that none of the above are important to you. That really matters to the employee – especially those who want to know how they’re doing and want to get on. Are they going to stay with you if you whack them around the head with a wet haddock like this too often? Course not.
It’s only the time it takes to go for a coffee.
So can you stick to that? Really? Honestly? If so, marvellous! If you think you might lapse, you know what? I think you might need to implement a formal appraisal scheme instead…
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