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From the Vaults: Creating the Perfect Appraisal

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Harvey Bennett explains how to create the perfect appraisal, and whether common strategic practices really work.





Appraisals always get a mixed press: people either love them or hate them.

Those who hate them do so because:

  • It’s seen as a ritual (usually – but not necessarily - attributed to the HR function and a requirement for line managers to jump through an annual ‘hoop’) or a tick-box exercise.

  • The quality of the face-to-face appraisal discussion is poor.

  • It is viewed as manipulative, for categorising individuals and justifying salary increases.

Understanding what the appraisal is all about is fundamental to successfully using this essential management and organisational development tool, so education of both appraisers and appraisees is fundamental. We can look at this from two angles: task and process.

Regarding the task aspect, appraisal aligns the goals or objectives for the individual with the strategic and business goals of the organisation. If the two are not aligned – i.e. the individual’s objectives are not obviously linked to the bigger objectives in some way – then why has that objective been set for the individual? Appraisees need to understand this … and to feel able to ask for the link if it isn’t readily apparent.

This puts the onus back on the boss to understand the organisation’s objectives and to communicate these to their people regularly, and particularly at the start of the appraisal cycle (the setting of objectives phase).

The process of appraisal is particularly important. Setting objectives is the start, but what part does the appraisee play. If you want ownership, then the appraisee needs to contribute to the goal setting process. This pre-supposes that they’ve been briefed on the organisation’s goals – long-term and the year ahead.

Then the objective needs to be spelled out so that the appraisee clearly understands what a successful accomplishment is and looks like. SMART is one way of addressing this; NLP visioning techniques are also useful and motivational in setting out success, helping the individual to project themselves into the future to ‘see’ what success will look and feel like.


"If the appraisee is set objectives for which they do not have the skills, tools and other resources, then you – as the appraiser – is setting them up to fail."


An often forgotten element of goal setting is checking out whether the appraisee has the skills and tools to achieve the objective, so training is important. If the appraisee is set objectives for which they do not have the skills, tools and other resources, then you – as the appraiser – is setting them up to fail.

If you ‘determine the ends’ then you need to ‘provide the means’. As part of your objective setting process, you have to include a Gap Analysis to check out that action is taken to resolve any missing skills, tools and resources. You then have to deliver on this, as part of the psychological contract with that individual.

Whilst this may be stating the obvious, successful performance management is not simply about six or twelve monthly appraisal reviews; it is about providing the required quality and frequency of contact between boss and subordinate. The Hersey and Blanchard (1977) situational leadership model – direct / support / coach / delegate - is a useful model to bear in mind when setting objectives, and you may need to adopt a different approach for some objectives where the appraisee is not yet experienced enough in a particular area, with frequency of contact being higher for these aspects.

Where an individual is inexperienced in a specific area that has been included in their annual objectives, then you, as appraiser, will need to review frequently to ensure that everything remains on track.

These guiding principles are aimed at individuals who are working in a stable team. However, it is becoming much more common for individuals to work in project teams that are put together and then disbanded on completion of the project. The project may have two ‘bosses’ – the (temporary) project leader and their (permanent) line manager – so how does one appraise effectively in these situations?

One might like to consider the appraisal as having two aspects, though they are not unconnected. The project leader focus is probably on the short term requirement of delivering the project to budget, quality and time requirements, utilising the skills of the subordinate team members. The line manager will have a longer term perspective: his appraisee is a valuable resource who will contribute to a series of projects and who will have skills to be developed.


"Putting a time gap between development discussions and salary reviews helps to encourage a frank discussion about strengths, weaknesses and development support. However, it is naive to believe that the two topics can be completely compartmentalised. The quality of these discussions rely on the integrity and competence of the line manager."


The project manager will carry out the appraisal as a project review and an assessment of the employee’s contribution during that time period; the line manager will carry out their review based on the series of projects (and there may be a number of projects being carried out at the same time) and with an eye on continuing professional development.

The line manager will need a wider perspective and so, to carry out the development aspect of appraisal effectively, will need to get feedback from the wide range of people with whom the appraisee has worked: peers, customers, project team members, as well as their project manager. Getting this customer feedback can be done via a chat on the phone, but it can be enhanced by using tools like 360-degree feedback using a structured competence framework of skills that are needed for effective project working.

The use of 360 in this context blurs the edges a bit about best practice guidelines for getting clear water between 360 feedback development and performance appraisal … but the two elements are interconnected: one can only do a good job if one has the skills and resources required. But we’ve been there earlier! Putting a time gap between development discussions and salary reviews helps to encourage a frank discussion about strengths, weaknesses and development support. However, it is naive to believe that the two topics can be completely compartmentalised. The quality of these discussions rely on the integrity and competence of the line manager.

In summary, then, if you want to have an effective appraisal system then you need to educate both the appraisers and appraisees in its purpose and benefits, and that education process needs to start with the board so that they are absolutely clear about the need for clarity of direction, and communication of organisational goals. Poor performance management is time wasting and damaging for employee morale.

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