Chapter 7 of my book, ‘Mapping Motivation’, from Routledge (https://amzn.to/2eqdSQq ) is about Performance Appraisal and, though I say it myself, is one of the most fascinating and original chapters in the book. Indeed, I think Motivational Maps provides one of the most ingenious solutions ever to the problems that beset Performance Appraisal in the modern world; problems so serious that the credibility of the whole process is under threat. Many organisations now have abandoned even doing a review of and for their employees. Before quoting an early passage in the chapter I would just like to say, however, why this is so important to me.
First, because how we perform always impacts our self-esteem, our self-concept, and so our overall well-being. If we do not have mechanisms that support that, what then do we have that can produce any goodness in our working lives? Second, the benefits of performance appraisal are not merely confined to the employee: the improvement in performance of any individual can directly lead to increased productivity for the company. And thirdly, and on a more personal note: performance appraisal was where I really started my management consultancy journey long ago in 1990! I was selected as one of a small and unique team of senior leaders to be trained for 3-plus days to be a County-wide trainer for other senior teachers in the educational authority in which I was based; after the training I spent five years going round the county delivering what I had learnt – and adding to it. So when I left teaching in 1995, and switched to the commercial and business sector, it was natural to build upon my appraisal expertise and become a trainer. In short, I believe I developed a deep understanding of the process, its benefits, and certainly its flaws.
We learn from Chapter 7, then, that:
“The purpose of Performance Appraisal is really one thing and one thing only: to improve the employee’s performance; all other purposes dilute this central mission, and are correspondingly responsible for many of the reasons why Performance Appraisal fails to deliver. Gerry Randall describes it this way: "Employee Appraisal can be seen as the formal process for collecting information from and about the staff of an organization for decision-making purposes... one overriding purpose of this decision making emerged, improving people's performance in their existing job." [from Chapter Seven of Mapping Motivation: James Sale, Routledge,[ https://bit.ly/2ep0dxJ ]
The rest of the chapter goes into a lot of detail as to the how Motivational Maps can provide the solution to the central problem of appraisal: namely, that it has become a tick-boxing exercise. But failure to understand this point about purpose has led so many managers and leaders into a bewildering wilderness of confusion and despair; why doesn’t appraisal ‘work’? Because they are falling victim to what I called in an earlier blog ‘The Stalingrad Principle’. What is the Stalingrad Principle? It is my way of describing what in terms of military principles is sometimes called ‘the principle of focus’. You will recall that in 1941 Hitler’s army reached the gates of Moscow and his army could have taken the city. But before they could do so Hitler issued an order, which his generals disagreed with but had to implement anyway, to divide his forces into three: one to take Moscow, the other to march towards and take Leningrad, and the other to go south and take Stalingrad. The net result of this order was an attack on three major cities over nearly an 18-month siege, but in which Hitler ended up winning none of the battles; and in particular at Stalingrad he suffered a devastating reversal – losing the whole of his 6th Army – which was truly the beginning of the end for him. In other words, dividing our attention, our focus, our forces, our resources in order to achieve too many goals or objectives is a sure way to achieve none of them, even though the objectives themselves may be extremely commendable in terms of our overall, envisioned end-state.
In the book I point out that the one, overriding purpose of appraisal is “to improve performance”; all other uses of the process are abuses of the process and will undermine its core effectiveness. Because of constraints of space I do not go into much detail about these other ‘purposes’ and I would like to now. What are they? And why are they so attractive?
Given that appraisal happens, takes up employee and the manager’s time, and is not directly productive or usually part of anyone’s job description, it’s natural that managers would want to make every second of the interview count, so that as much as possible can be done. Thus the central purpose – improving performance – can easily become answering the question of: evaluation, or how well is he or she doing the job? As a focal point, this is a critical mistake since it engenders fear, the number one thing, according to W.E. Deming, that we need to drive out if we want a highly productive workforce.
But evaluation leads almost imperceptibly into another process that the quest for certainty engenders: the appraisal become an auditing of the employees. Finally, we discover what jobs are being done?! Wow – that really can lead to lots of ticks in boxes! Once we have these boxes ticked, we can go even further and seek validation: we can know the right things are being done. So we have here in evaluation, auditing and validation almost a beautiful transformation of appraisal into an accountancy model.
Then again, we know – because this is in our management job description – that we need to do something about training next year. So the focus shifts to training and what do people need to do the job? Of course this is a good question, but it must never be the focus; alas, too often it can be because in a way it makes the manager seem like a good guy/gal – you are supporting the employee. However, it’s not the hard love of performance. And neither is another soft love option: development, or the ‘we’ are looking forward to plan. Development is good, but it has to be massively subordinated to performance or else the organization is going to be in deep trouble. And as much as I regret saying it, motivation too must be subordinated and is not the central purpose: yes, by all means constructive and useful feedback is good and motivating, but this must not be an end in itself. It’s a feature, not the benefit: the benefit of performance as focus and purpose.
Lastly, some are not seduced by soft love. Appraisal for them is all about controlling employees. In other words, I am telling you what to do. It’s the old top-down, command and control methodology that totally violates all we know about effective leadership (excepting in extreme, often military situations) in modern organizations. And allied to this, in terms of overt manipulation, we have the appraisal really determining succession planning, a very specific form of evaluation. Who should be promoted in the next season? A good question but not one appraisal should be answering because when it does it will again create fear and trembling in the majority of one’s employees.
Thus, we have here a lot of focuses that appraisal needs to avoid if it is going to deliver. It needs to avoid emphasis on evaluation, auditing, validating, training, development, motivation, controlling and succession planning; and performance needs to be at the forefront of its concern at all times. How to do that? Well, I would say this, but chapter 7 is a good starting place to find out!