Shaping Performance Appraisals, One Step at a Time

The last performance appraisal blog that I wrote caused quite a stir. While I am pleased that people actually read it and took the time to respond, the responses caused me to rethink what I wrote. While I don’t apologize for writing that the performance appraisal process needs to be eliminated, I do apologize for what I didn’t say. The appraisal process and all of the emotions surrounding it are too complicated and varied for me to adequately address in 600 to 1,000 words. I hope you will cut me some slack as I just have not perfected my writing skill to that level.

In my previous post, I may have also offended those who work in HR. That was not my intention, as people in HR can be as frustrated as anyone with managing a process that no one likes. In my opinion HR is often held accountable for outcomes and behaviors over which they have little or no control. That is highly stressful.

I believe that few people would disagree with the fact that performance appraisal is an unproductive and flawed process that needs radical changes. I do know that it is impractical in most companies to do away with the process, but I would recommend a shaping or small change approach to eventually eliminate it if at all possible. I would rarely recommend one try to make dramatic or overnight changes in anything. Although there are instances where radical change is necessary, more often than not such changes create more problems than they solve. I have written in the “OOPs!” book about the wrong-headed practice of “stretch goals” for that reason. The task should be to make changes that get us closer to our goal of the ideal process. To do that, you must have a vision of what the ideal state looks like.

Let me offer this example to further my point. I think Paul Wilson is the best golf coach around. He starts all his students by having them practice the end of the swing. His point is that by getting to the proper finishing position, you will have to engage in the correct behaviors. I am afraid that too many changes are made without understanding what the process should look like when we finish.

What small changes should be made? To share another example, I was invited to sit in a meeting at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., several years ago as a part of a tour of the facility to see how people were implementing the performance management process. The meeting was to make a policy change and the group was struggling to come to a decision. They were about equally divided between two different options. There was a lull in the discussion that was broken when one member spoke up and said, “What would Will say about this?” He was referring to Will Mayo, one of the founders of the clinic, who often said, “The interest of the patient is the only interest of concern.” Following that question the group quickly made a decision.

There is a saying that is familiar to most everyone. “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” If you don’t understand the real purpose of the performance appraisal process, any change will do. It should not be about money, competition or documentation. In my opinion, the real need is for a process that will help employees be more successful. When making decisions about changes to the performance appraisal process, the question that should be answered is, “How will this change help employees be more successful?”

Here are some suggestions for changes that will move organizations toward a culture where managers, supervisors and co-workers are dedicated to developing as few processes, policies and behaviors that are needed to help everyone be more successful. Here are my suggestions:

  • The first thing I would do, as you might imagine, is to train all management and supervisors on pinpointing behavior and to be effective shapers of behavior. Pinpointing behaviors is quite time-consuming as we are all well trained to use non-behavioral terms when evaluating or comparing employees. We measure such things as judgment, creativity, flexibility, leadership and communication. Using those descriptors, you would be unlikely to get a high level of agreement between supervisors or managers, no matter how much training they received. The question, “What do you want them to do?” is the most difficult to answer in many modern workplaces where collaboration and teamwork are at a premium. Be more creative is not a good answer. Neither is communicate better or show more leadership. Once supervisors and managers are skilled at pinpointing, the most valuable coaching skill is behavior shaping, which requires reinforcing small successive approximations toward a goal.
  • Another change I would suggest is to make sure that the performance appraisal process does not pit one employee against another. Most people I talk to deny that they have quotas for the appraisal scoring system. I suggest that almost all do. If you want to test this during the next appraisal cycle, put a paper on your boss’s desk that shows all employees receiving a top score. (Don’t do this for real, just for fun, hopefully.) If the boss says anything other than, “Fantastic!” your process probably promotes internal competition. Any system where employees are ranked or compared to one another is counterproductive.
  • Another change you might make is to measure supervisors based on the improvement of the employees under his or her supervision. If the mission of a supervisor is to create successful employees, the number of employees who are successful out of the total should be the supervisor’s score. The manager’s score should be the number of her supervisors who make progress in helping front-line employees improve.
  • And finally, another possible change is to eliminate the standardized forms (I saw one today that was eight pages) and ensure that the process is flexible enough to make the focus relevant and meaningful to each individual. Each person should have a plan for improvement. They should all be different. The plan should be originated by the employee being coached and modified by the coach or manager to include personal habits, attitudinal issues and teamwork as well as productivity, quality, safety and cost.

Certainly these are not all the changes that are needed, but they will get your organization a far piece down the road toward a high-performance culture where a formal appraisal process will not be necessary. If the organization has everyone focused on bringing out the best in each other, what more would we need? I hope I live to see that day when that is the norm rather than the exception.