Success Lies in Tailoring the Appraisal System to You and Your Staff
My reaction to performance appraisals is strong and emotional—I’ve been appraised many times and I’ve done many appraisals. Only occasionally has the process led to a strong, positive result. However, on several occasions, I have written performance appraisals that resulted in important decisions about people—decisions that led to promotions and, less frequently, decisions that resulted in a person being let go. (I’ve followed up on some of these latter scenarios and have been pleased to see that repetition of the behavior or performance issues continued, so my written comments were the first to document patterns of behavior and were instrumental in getting rid of the person.)
Lab Manager Magazine has published two articles on conducting performance appraisals in the past year: “Performance Reviews” by John K. Borchardt (July/August 2009) and “I Told You!” by Stephen Balzac, which covers 360-degree performance feedback (January 2010). This important topic has certainly not been exhausted. I encourage you to review the previous articles and think about the information you found useful. The 360-degree process is particularly valuable in situations where supervisors’ observations are indirect or based on reports written by other employees. The “360” literature is also valuable for developing skill sets and position requirements. While this approach is an excellent way to get performance feedback from peers and subordinates, from my experience, the 360 process can become an administrative burden if it isn’t tightly controlled. (Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/360-degree_feedback for more information.)
My goal in writing this article is to add to and expand on some of the previous articles and to focus on the application of appraisals in the workplace. There are three key issues related to performance appraisals (in fact, there really is nothing else that matters!):
- How can you maintain and improve current performance?
- How can you assess and improve the future potential of the person being appraised?
- How can you document behavior that might be an indication of character defects?
Any profession that has a high entry barrier—extensive education, internship, training, etc.—has an inherent implied or explicit protection for those who make their careers in this industry. (This is not to imply that blatant character flaws should not lead to immediate dismissal; rather, appraisals are sometimes the first documentation of personality, character, and performance deficits.)
If you are part of a large organization, you are likely bound by an existing system—a system that may or may not provide you with a structure that permits or encourages you to accurately evaluate and report on the successes, needs, and future potential of members of your staff. These systems tend to be generic and stylized and generally fail to recognize the unique characteristics, challenges, and opportunities of your group. Still, you have to make your evaluations fit into the corporate structure and ensure that your staff is competitive for salary and promotion opportunities. Can you both fit into the organization’s system and enable the system to be helpful in managing your group? Yes—and here are some ideas about how to do this.
First, if possible, arrange for a modification of the system as it applies to your group. This can be challenging and difficult, but some of your colleagues will have had success in getting such alternate systems in place.
Second, think in terms of two systems: the company requirements and the requirements of your department. Prepare two appraisals—a formal one to submit and an informal one to use for your staff development purposes.
Third, use a model that involves having monthly or more frequent discussions with your staff that will become the annual or semiannual formal evaluation.
You know about the biases that can influence objectivity— that’s why double-blind protocols are vital to getting a true measure of the outcome of an experiment. However, you may not be as familiar with the impact that normal human biases can have on dealing with staff members.
Here’s a review of the biases we bring into all management situations. This can be especially important in preparing performance appraisals. (Visit http://www. scribd.com/doc/30548590/Cognitive-Biases-A-Visual- Study-Guide for a listing of the cognitive biases we all bring to situations.)
“A good deed today is worth ten good deeds six months ago.” I just made that up, and the proportion is probably way off, but the truth is that we tend to value recent wonderfulness, or devilment, much more highly, or lowly, than that we experienced some time ago. This is a fact that you can use with your boss too! Here’s a tip to overcome this bias: keep good notes for the entire appraisal period.
We tend to evaluate people who are like us more highly than those who are different. It isn’t necessary to delve deeply into the psychodynamics of this fact, but a mirror will probably help to explain the rationale. The problem, of course, is that we undervalue, or devalue, people who are different from us. As objective evaluators, this is something we really need to keep in mind. It doesn’t mean that we are bad—just that we are human. Tip: Give the people who are different from you in terms of ethnicity, age, sex, or personality a special look to satisfy yourself that you are as free from bias as humanly possible. Ensure that your evaluation is based on what they do—not who they are. (Note: This was described in my article “Honing Your Interview Skills,” Lab Manager Magazine, October 2009.)
The more objective and the more specific you can be in your evaluations, the better. Numbers are the most objective indicators of proficiency, but for most of the people whom you are evaluating, that approach really won’t work often. But if you can design and prepare your evaluations as if they were based on numbers, you can remove at least some of the subjectivity from them. Tip: Use as many cold, hard facts as you can in the evaluations you prepare; the results may surprise even you.
The halo effect refers to our tendency to evaluate someone who is excellent in one area as excellent in all areas of evaluation. It may be that we feel constrained by the system from really properly rewarding our best performers. It may be that excellence in one area really does mean excellence across the board as far as the impact of their work is concerned. However, if you want to make the system work as it should, and if your system is supposed to be identifying potential for promotion, this error will subvert the intent and objectives of the system. Tip: If you want to reward someone who really deserves it, grade the person more highly than he or she deserves in some areas, but be fully aware of what you are doing!
This is the other side of the halo effect. I will admit to grading someone poorly across the board when the specific grades in some categories were a stretch. But it worked! I knew the system, how the system worked, and how to “work the system.” My technique was important and effective in identifying someone who needed to be fired who effectively had “tenure.” (This happened in a system where the protections were nearly as strong as those found in academia.) The individual whom was I was appraising and his ACLU lawyer could have challenged each of the marks I gave the employee, but that would have opened up an opportunity to get more damning evidence into the record. They chose not to. Tip: If you choose to use this technique, which I’ll call “sharpening the horns,” make sure you can stand the possible heat; can, in general, back up your positions; and, most important, are sure that your cause is just. Is awareness enough to overcome these human characteristics? No, but it is the vital first step.
Things you can do to have more effective performance appraisals
Set objectives together. Work with your staff to set individualized, measurable objectives. When you do this, you will have established the foundation for an easy and mutually agreeable appraisal, one that will be useful in supporting the growth and development of the person.
Review performance and coach frequently. Set a standard time frame for review and updating the objectives you set together. Keep these conversations clean and simple—“Just do it.”
Check your biases. Don’t expect to eliminate your personal biases, as they impact your performance appraisals regardless of your best efforts to prevent them from doing so. Simply be aware that they exist, and that will help reduce the negative impact they have.
Keep your system clean and simple. Hold discussions that are objective, interactive, and specific. Focus on improvements and sources of help— things that can be fixed or changed. Don’t let things that are outside the control of someone keep them from being successful. Your 5’2”, 120-pound, 23-year old recent college graduate isn’t going to succeed in the NBA—and that’s not something he can correct!
Remember, performance appraisals should do three things: improve or maintain current performance; assess and improve future performance potential; and (infrequently!) identify character deficits.
Finally, it is unlikely that formal performance systems will disappear in our lifetimes, so learn to live within the system you work with and mold it to be helpful to you in the management and development of your staff. Done well and consistently, performance appraisals can be one of your most important tools in becoming an excellent coach. Accuracy, truthfulness, objectivity and courage are the keys to effective performance management through performance appraisals.
Balzac, S., “I Told You!” Lab Manager Magazine, January 2010.
Borchardt, J., “Performance Reviews,” Lab Manager Magazine, July/August 2009.
Pickett, R., “Honing Your Interview Skills,” Lab Manager Magazine, October 2009.