Is it time to consider scrapping appraisals?

For many employees and managers, appraisals are a necessary evil.

Embedded in the corporate psyche, cherished by HR professionals, reinforced through numerous national bodies and their management frameworks, and loved by bureaucrats thanks to the number of appraisals completed providing yet another performance indicator to be collated. Appraisals are part of the scenery of working life – a once a year retrospective look at performance which is unloved by employees and managers alike.

The arguments for conducting appraisals are well rehearsed. Indeed sitting on my bookshelf are numerous textbooks extolling the virtues of why appraisals are an essential part of any effective management system. Logic has it that an appraisal (or the more modern and softer entitled Personal Development Review) provides a formal opportunity to record an individual’s ability in their role, grade their suitability for promotion or a bonus, outline career development opportunities and provide feedback on their performance over the previous year. But therein lies a major problem. In a modern customer focussed business environment, engagement with suppliers and customers is a daily activity, and customers won’t wait a year for issues to be addressed, staff upskilled or improvements to be made. And at an individual level, employees are no different. Highly motivated and engaged staff want and need regular, accurate and timely feedback. Waiting until an annual review is not only too late but because the review period is so vast, it is difficult to provide fair representation across the whole timeframe.

The second major problem with the traditional model of appraisals is that it fails to adequately recognise changes in employment models away from a hierarchical 1:1 employee-manager relationship toward individuals increasingly working on portfolios of short term projects and tasks, with multiple concurrent leaders, colleagues and customers. Therefore it is increasingly difficult for one manager to provide a formal yet accurate overview of performance.

Shifting the focus away from annual reporting toward regular ongoing and honest 2-way feedback as part of good management practice reinforces objectives and expectations, celebrates success and provides opportunities to ‘nip problems in the bud’. It enables staff to apply those skills learnt, tested and confirmed as successful in one project in other ongoing tasks, and offers a much more powerful tool for both managers and staff alike, especially where such activities are embedded in the culture of a business and part of day-to-day processes such as team wash-ups, after action reviews and post training evaluations. Just as a key component to successfully running a first marathon is not to look at the challenge in its entirety but to break training into smaller more manageable goals, regular check-ins with staff allow expectations for the upcoming period to be set, progress on previously agreed development to be reviewed, momentum to be maintained and encouragement to be provided. Furthermore, there is greater opportunity for the manager to take away timely actions to help resolve issues for the individual or team and to demonstrate meaningful and valued support.

So how often should ‘regular’ feedback be? Weekly, fortnightly and monthly meetings are all commonly quoted, but good managers will recognise there is no magic number – it depends entirely on the individual; the phase(s) of work they are undertaking; their capability, confidence and experience; and a wide range of environmental facts such as home or remote working. For these reasons two apparently similar team members may have completely different needs. Of course, where issues do arise, it is advantageous that these can be addressed quickly with timely support to improve performance. Therefore I would argue that multiple lightweight, flexible and ongoing ‘touch points’ are vastly more beneficial than a once per year meeting.

So for a small agile SME like Inzpire, should we scrap appraisals? We are still small enough to feel like a family yet have aspirations to be a significant player within our operating environment. We have an incredibly loyal and engaged workforce and want to provide the most productive working environment for our teams. Therefore over the next few months we will be focussing on re-evaluating our position on appraisals to allow us to enhance regular feedback, guidance, support, employee development and engagement while removing as many unnecessary distractions as possible from the core task of delivering outstanding products and services to our customers.

Image: Appraisals By Michael

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