If there is one things that I have some passion about when it comes to performance appraisals...be it the giving or the receipt of them...it's the notion of surprises that crop up in these documents and discussions.
Wait, I think I need to level set here in that I think there are three parts of a performance appraisal discussion:
- There is the actual document where the performance for the year is described and categorized into neat little buckets (fair or not, our little minds need to anchor thoughts in ways that we can readily understand...be it grades in school or performance categories at work)
- There is the actual verbal message being conveyed by the appraiser
- There is the collective (verbal and written) message being received by the person being appraised
In theory, an ideal discussion occurs when all of these three things are aligned...what is written is in sync with what is said and both are received/understood as intended by the recipient. Note the words "in theory".
Here's where my pet peeve comes into play. In any of the above, is the recipient of the performance appraisal hearing something for the first time? If it is, then I view this as being something of a failure on the part of the appraiser. Basically there should be few, if any, surprises. I could rant on about this for hours, but to condense my point here I'll simply say that effective leadership doesn't duck issues until that once a year magical moment known as the annual performance appraisal. No, effective leadership deals with gaps in performance on an on-going basis. This is the difficult, dirty, "in the trenches" part of leadership.
Now I'm not putting all the pressure of the leader, because in point of fact all of us own our individual performance. The person we report to has an obligation to help us perform at our best, but we have an obligation seek to perform at our best. This can be accomplished in many different ways, but I am fond of one little, simple "tool" (consultants love to have "tools") that is very effective in this area: ASK. Ask with some frequency. Ask what? Well, ask...
"How am I doing?"
"Any feedback for me?"
"What should I be doing more of?"
"What should I be doing less of?"
...and don't wait until that magical once a year moment to pose these questions to your leader.
Leaders should be asking the people that report to them similar questions with some frequency throughout the year as well. I do, and interestingly enough, one of my direct reports asked me why I do. My response? "I want to perform at my best as a leader."
In the end, despite the plethora of books, white papers and the like out there on this subject, I'm convinced that there are elements of leadership that really just amount to common sense. One of these elements is the simple one that says "treat others in the way you would like to be treated". Would you, as a leader, want to be surprised by some "issue" that comes up for the very first time during your annual performance appraisal? Probably not.
Bottom line: "Shock and awe" may make for good military strategy, but it makes for poor performance management.