Appraisal is such a good idea and it is founded on such solid psychological principles that it is a wonder it has such a bad reputation, and that it fails to deliver so frequently. It was WE Deming, the great quality guru, who said that it took the average American six months to recover from performance appraisal. The irony is not lost that the average American also experiences appraisals twice a year, so that in effect they never fully recover!
But what are these solid psychological principles? Basically, the father of American psychology, William James, discovered that people perform better when three essential conditions are met. First, that they are set clear goals and objectives. Second, that they are involved in setting those goals and
objectives. And finally, that they are given adequate feedback on how they are doing. This sounds simple enough, and almost an account of how the appraisal is supposed to work: manager meets employee to discuss how they are doing, give that adequate feedback, and then collaboratively set new goals and objectives together. If they don’t collaborate what would be the point of the meeting? They may as well email employees the targets.
Despite this, bosses complain appraisal is ineffective, and staff complain it’s all about ticking boxes. Why does it all go so badly wrong?
There are many reasons, but let’s look at four. First, trying to implement appraisal systems in what might be termed a 'mechanistic' culture. Here hierarchies prevail, which means commitment is lacking. People expect to be told what to do, and bosses expect to know best, sometimes
unintentionally even discounting the views of the employee. Thus the essential collaborative ingredient is always short-circuited.
Next, job descriptions, whilst good in themselves, can be a source of tension with notions of
excellence. Excellence or outstanding performance often implies a beyond-contract arrangement. Staff then end up being judged on an expectation which is not in their job description. If this 'excellence' becomes the expectation, then the assessment is likely to be unfair.
One curious anomaly is also how appraisal might boost the individual performance but at the expense of the team performance. The drive to make the individual perform at a higher level can inflict damage on team morale, especially when the ‘adequate’ feedback becomes, as it often does,
comparative: other team members are hitting targets ahead of you, and so on. Once trust and confidence in the team goes, of course, the effect on individual performances is usually dire as disintegration overwhelms the team members, including those who are hitting target.
Then there are the structural solutions for behavioural problems. Managers and bosses like this, since it appears, at least temporarily, that they are making progress. There is a performance issue which
directly stems from the poor behaviour and attitudinal traits of the employees; this at the best of times is a difficult area to tackle. Sometimes, but not always, it is difficult for managers because the cause of the poor behaviours stems from poor management. Rather than contemplate that possibility the bright idea is to create some structural change or introduce some new system which will dissolve the bad behaviour. Of course, process, structures and systems do no such thing. In fact, appraisal as a system, even badly implemented, will only exacerbate bad behaviours, and this is because the skills needed to conduct an effective appraisal are leadership skills – the absence of which likely caused the problem in the first place – and so only provide another opportunity to demonstrate more ineptitude on the part of managers.
Finally, for now, there is the issue of standards versus creativity. Appraisal is a system and like any system can become more or less flexible. A system which is too standard and target driven can easily
become a drive for conformity. This can manifest itself at all levels – creating safe comfort zone activities, obsession with assessment measures and results, management 'group think', and so on. This drives out creativity and innovation – on which so much ultimately depends.
Getting it right, then, requires some serious thinking and sensitivity – pulling an appraisal package off the shelf is hardly likely to be good value for money, or a good idea!