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Appraisals what are they good for?

How many people have a good performance appraisal experience? How many line managers feel that they are just a “HR box ticking” episode (bah humbug)? More to the point how many people actually have appraisals at work?

Having spent time reviewing a large organisation’s appraisal process, it is clear that there is a no one size fits all formula. In fact, making sense of the weight of conflicting models and theory from psychology for conducting appraisals is tricky. Its akin to herding very excitable cats high on industrial strength catnip. The Internet is awash with confusing “do this or 4 easy ways to create engagement through appraisals” that just adds to the confusion. However, if arranged properly performance appraisals can become a source of team & individual business focus, proper job design, improved communication, employee motivation, build confidence, self-esteem and can be seen as a huge learning and development opportunity for all concerned.

Evidence for the Appraisal

Social & work psychology has a lot to say about appraising people at work and how people make judgements or our bias about others. Research shows that we are highly subjective and very often biased due to mood or skewed judgements. In many cases we can draw seriously invalid conclusions about motives and actions of people based on our own sometimes skewed view of the world. This is primarily due to our habit of utilising “cognitive shortcuts or cognitive heuristics” to help us manage and make some sense of our increasingly complex surroundings. Sadly, this may explain our tendency for the bias, to stereotype and frame our prejudices of others, that can lead to significant problems assessing people at work.

So back to the performance appraisal process and how to potentially make it more of an objective, more about evidence and less subjective. To clarify, appraisals are to improve performance for the organisation, a team and the individual. So here are a few pointers that may be helpful to both appraisers and appraisees that may add a little more science to the whole business.

Are Appraisals worth the time?

So why do companies have annual reviews in the first place? Perhaps they are an artefact from the traditional top-down organisations to “weed out” poor performers. Forcing managers to rate people once a year and have annual talent reviews to decide who gets more money, who to promote and who to let go. It maybe that this approach is based on the belief that “we cant totally trust managers” so we’re going to force them to fit people into these rating scales?

Problems around Appraisals

  • Employees need feedback, therefore a once-a-year review is a shock to the system for all parties.
  • Managers will find judging an entire year of work from an individual at one time difficult. Therefore the annual review can be awkward and uncomfortable for both manager and employee.
  • Manager-employee relationships are never equal. One person cannot adequately rate performance without bias and input from different sources.
  • While some employees are a poor fit for their roles or organisation and are perhaps poor performers, any issues should be addressed immediately and not at the end of the year.
  • Some companies have very high performers, so a forced ranking can eliminate great people and damage the culture.
  • People are inspired and motivated by being coached with positive, constructive feedback – and the “appraisal” process can in some cases works against this.
  • The most valuable part of an appraisal is the “development planning” conversation, however what can one meeting do to improve performance and engagement? Sadly this is often left to a small box on the review form.

That said many companies are loathed to abolish the appraisal system, perhaps to record of low/high performance to reward or when we let someone go. Organisational structures have changed and companies may need to be much more nimble on its feet. It is argued that there is shortage of talent and success now focuses on regular alignment, coaching, creating engagement, and continuous employee careers and professional development.

So what to do how can appraisals move forward into the 21st century effectively?

High performance appraisal cultures endeavour to;

  • Separate the discussions about performance from discussions about potential and future career plans.
  • Add clarity about objectives and goals for the business and individuals
  • Talk about performance regularly and empower employees create their own goals on a regular basis.
  • Provide continuous objective feedback on performance
  • Provide recognition of performance
  • Support personal development of individuals within the business.

Adopting an objective goal orientated approach can provide;

  • To set and reset employee and manager goals frequently
  • Investment in leadership and managerial development
  • Allowing leaders a cultural framework and set of values to work and manage from
  • A deeper understanding of the job or role and how to develop
  • Reward talented “production” not talent just for the sake of it
  • A focus upon the real business needs and objectives
  • Improved communication and engagement


Focussing upon goals, Key Result Areas (KRA’s) and using objective measures of performance (perhaps a well designed and evidenced based psychometric test or 360 feedback) will provide a framework to remove the subjectivity of the appraisal process for both appraiser and appraisee. As a result, there is a focus upon ratings of performances that are clear and transparent and not about personality or subjectivity. Consultation with staff teams, coaching and interpersonal skills training for line managers and a leadership team that talks up the system will ensure that systems support changing the culture of appraisals from a pain to a pleasure & an opportunity.

So as the title of this article asks, Appraisals what are they good for – well everything if got right. The chance for members of staff to focus upon their performance and what they need to perform better is a liberating experience for many. Turning the drudgery of appraisal times into opportunities for CPD and L&D has got to be a positive move forward for many businesses. Anything that helps people feel connected to their work, career and their personal or professional development will drive engagement and remove cynicism from line managers and staff. Getting appraisals right is a win – win for everyone concerned; just make sure the proper evidence is researched and utilised for everyone’s benefit.