Are you sitting uncomfortably?

The annual appraisal is not dissimilar to the school report. You look forward to them and dread them in equal measure and then, once read, they are banished to the bottom drawer where they are left to gather dust. A year’s effort condensed into overused adjectives and the all-important letters of the alphabet.

My German class chum received a report that he remembers to this day: ‘Tom is the sublime optimist who dreams of working his way effortlessly to the top. I fear he will be disappointed.’ So did the words inspire change and motivate my day-dreaming pal to achieve German excellence? In a word, no. He received an ‘unclassified’ in his O level, which despite being a remarkable feat (did he spell his name right?) was not the achievement he was after.

The annual appraisal might be a more grown-up version of the school report, but does it enjoy any more success in motivating and/or stimulating change? I rather expect a report card assessing appraisals and appraisal systems would read ‘could try harder’.

Sheppard Moscow recently commissioned a study of employee appraisal systems. Over three quarters of employees questioned from the accountancy and banking sectors said that their post-appraisal performance improved only ‘a little’, ‘not very much’ or ‘not at all’.

So why are traditional appraisal methods failing and how can appraisals do better, work harder and achieve tangible results for both the employee and the business?

Committing to paper how we really feel about something or someone can be daunting. Will I still feel the same in six months? Will the individual constantly resent me for my opinion? Will what I write come back to haunt me and might it have a negative impact on someone’s career and livelihood? The reasons are many and complex but most significantly, there is a general culture of mistrust and caution surrounding appraisal systems.

Think about the following typical scenario: ‘Jim Smith’ is filling in a 360-degree questionnaire on his boss, work is piling up and he has a number of things going on in his mind. Also he doesn’t have just the one form to complete, but several as everyone in the department has been set the same ‘task’.

On the positive side, however, Jim’s company favours the IT version of the questionnaire which means he can dash it off fairly quickly. All is going well (and speedily) until Jim hits the number scale dimensions. Jim is thinking that whilst Bob has got things he can improve on, he’s a fairly decent bloke and he certainly doesn’t want to be responsible for dropping him in it – after all it could well feed into and effect his pay review. Jim is beginning to feel that the number scales available to him are limiting – in some respects Bob is definitely a 2 but last week he was more of a 6, playing safe and erring on the side of diplomacy, Jim plumps for a 4.

This tentative (dishonest?) approach contributes to a trend that HR managers refer to as ‘upward drift’, that is where everyone (post appraisal) comes out as either ‘average’ or above – surely a statistical impossibility. Although there would appear to be a current lack of honesty and openness in traditional appraisal systems (only half of all accountancy employees questioned as part of the research said that they were honest ‘all of the time’) rather than shying away from the truth, nearly half said that the change they would most like to see implemented in their current appraisal system is ‘more frank and honest feedback’.

But straight-talking criticism – constructive or otherwise – can be hard to handle, especially when the person being appraised is feeling powerless and vulnerable.

Taking this into account and recognising the absolute necessity for a culture of honesty within the context of appraisals, we have developed what we believe is a revolutionary approach to appraisals called The Well.

The concept is simply – it places ownership of the appraisal with the person receiving the feedback. They decide who they want feedback from and the questions they want answered. Because the individual has control he/she responds far more positively to the feedback and a safe, supportive atmosphere is created where it feels entirely appropriate to be 100% honest.

As far as possible, this feedback is given directly, in person as part of a conversation and we have found that this more visceral approach carries greater emotional impact and compels individuals to make genuine changes in behaviour and performance which in turn can have significant impact on the organisation.

Successful organisations are often likened to well-oiled machines, with each employee a cog within the whole. This might be true to some extent, but it is the individuality of the employee, and their relationships with clients and colleagues that underpins a successful business. And that is where traditional, one-size-fits-all appraisal systems ‘could do better’.

Frances Storr is lead consultant at organisational development consultancy Sheppard Moscow

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