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Appraisals: Prepare your People. By John Pope


John Pope Performance and development reviews can often be of little use if the correct processes aren't in place, or if those involved are unprepared. Management consultant John Pope discusses the benefits of training both the manager and the appraisee to ensure successful reviews.

No-one knows how successful performance and development reviews really are. Some people certainly do benefit and in some organisations they are taken very seriously indeed.

But in many organisations such reviews are seen as an act of faith, and - perhaps in too many – they are seen as an unproductive chore.

There can be many reasons why reviews can be unproductive, either in general or for some of the individuals, whether manager or subordinate. Sometimes the system is too big, complicated, and daunting, or done at a 'poor time'.

One of the major reasons though is because manager and subordinate alike are not properly prepared, do not see the value, misunderstand their purpose, or do not discuss the issues which arise in a way that leads to a satisfactory and productive outcome for both parties.

What makes reviews work?
People welcome their review when they know that it:

  • Is realistic and fair

  • Will recognise and record their skill, effort and achievements

  • Identifies where and how they can improve their performance

  • Can lead to better opportunities or promotion

  • Will help resolve any issues

Above all, it is essential that whatever action is agreed at the discussion, does happen.

Training is essential for success
Even when a review scheme is too big, complex, or does not suit the circumstances, it is still possible to get productive results if those who are taking part are well trained, have the skills that are needed, and are well prepared.

While some managers are naturally good at dealing with performance and development issues, or are good coaches, many are not. And while some subordinates are eager for helpful discussion of their performance, development and prospects, many, through basic attitude and previous unhappy experiences, approach their reviews in a poor frame of mind.

"Both manager and subordinate need to understand the process, its intention, and have the necessary skills."

In all but the most directive of reviews, the review is two-sided; it is a discussion which generates decisions to which all parties are committed. So both manager and subordinate need to understand the process, its intention, and have the necessary skills. It is easier, as well as being more logical, to start at the top.

Train the managers
Managers need to understand the aim, principles and mechanics of the process. They need to know and be able to gather the information on which they make their judgements of performance and competence. They need to know how to identify the reasons why an individual’s performance is excellent or poor, and be able to prioritise any action needed. They certainly need to be able to identify talent or unused talents and spot how and where they could be of best use to the individual and to the organisation.

And, above all, they need to be able to lead the appraisal / discussion, raise and resolve delicate issues in a constructive way. Some senior managers need to be skilled in moderating the reviews made by their subordinates, and they need to know how to prepare for that review discussion.

What about the 'appraisee'?
I am convinced that the 'appraisee' needs the same help as the appraiser, for several reasons. Some of those who are being reviewed will themselves be reviewing their subordinates. But even those who are not need to know the aim and purpose of the review, aspects to be covered, and how performance is assessed, so that, in the essential two-sided discussion, they can be on level terms with the appraiser.

I can think of plenty of managers whose abilities to conduct a discussion could be compensated for by an appraisee who had the skills needed in dealing with a difficult customer.

If you take the view, as I do, that the review is the opportunity to improve mutual performance, find ways to make best use of an individual's talents, and plan development, it is clearly important that the two-sided discussion is conducted well, on the basis of evidence and reasoned judgement. The parties to that discussion need to be well prepared and be skilful in keeping the discussion productive.

How can we train the appraisees?
Well, how seriously do you want to take it? What do you honestly expect the process to achieve? What experience of performance review have they already had? Are you changing the review system? What difficulties do you expect? Are you going to use the system to control, reward or punish people? (Yes, some schemes do!) How much effort do you need to put in? Depending on the answers you could:

  • Hold a briefing – explain the aims and processes, field questions, answer questions.

  • Set up 'clinics' where individuals expecting a difficult review can discuss issues with a neutral advisor before the review takes place.

  • Run a programme similar to the ones you would run for managers in which common problems are discussed, and perhaps get acted out – either using actions or role-play. Incidentally some of those employees are just as good at role play as are their managers.

  • Provide instruction using any of the good films or packages. Better check that the doctrine they preach conforms to yours – one of the standard John Cleese videos of years ago had an example which accidentally turned what was supposed to be a development review into a cause for compensation.

Back to basics
The performance and development review can be a very powerful tool for improving performance and fostering and making the best use of talent. It should be the culmination of many informal discussions on a level footing between people, one of whom is senior to the other. Both parties need to be able to handle that review effectively. Both need to be well prepared and most will need some training and practice to do it well.

About the author: John Pope has been a management consultant for 40 years and has seen management fashions come and go. He has advised organisations, large and small, on management appraisal and development and helped them improve the effectiveness of their appraisal processes. John can be contacted at [email protected].


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