Focusing on contributions of the employee and how they can become even better at their jobs, instead of numbers and ratings, can make appraisal meetings more meaningful for all concerned.
It is performance appraisal and review time for most companies. Employees will be busy recounting their contributions and managers analysing them and offering feedback or discounting them. Despite tonnes of money spent on training and coaching managers and employees alike, performance appraisal season witnesses a lot of anxiety and tension.
Going for a performance review discussion is often likened to going to a dentist. It is packed with same level of anxiety. The only difference, perhaps, is that when you go to a dentist, you know who the dentist is and who the patient. In performance review discussions, we often
notice that both the managers and the employees reviewed go through equal amount of anxiety. In my view, performance management discussions do not have to be so depressing and dreaded. It can actually be a very pleasant experience for both the appraisee and the appraiser.
Making review discussion on performance a pleasant experience requires a deep understanding of the purpose of performance review itself. More often than not, the focus is shifted to the rating scales and the intended rating for the appraisee. It is common sense that ratings do not determine our lives and our contributions. If the message is loud and clear and reinforced to the people that performance review is basically to help the appraisee take stock of his or her own contributions and in the light of the review, how they can perform better and become even more valuable to the organisation, the focus shifts from a mind- numbing number game to an enriching conversation. Excessive focus on ratings leads to unpleasant arguments and sometimes even hurts the relationship and chemistry between the managers and direct reports.
Change the tone
Imagine if we present this conversation as an opportunity to (a) thank the appraisees for their contributions, (b) reinforce managers’ faith in their talent; (c) explain the emerging challenges for the coming year (d) seek employee support for meeting these challenges and, finally, but most importantly (f) checking out what support the employees need to deliver the expectations. The quality of conversation takes a very different quality and standard.
On the other hand, what we witness in many organisations is what Scot Adam’s Dilbert cartoon series depicts and describes as the norm! In his peek into the cubicles, he pictures the performance appraisals and reviews as resulting in (a) making the appraisee look like a Roman Orchid slave;(b) using review discussions to hold the employee accountable for all the productivity crimes; and finally (c) using ratings to justify the pathetic raise planned for the employees! This is not a conversation that employees enjoy and look forward to; perhaps this is not what even the managers enjoy in reality. Then, why do reviews stick to this format? Why can’t reviews be reformatted to reflect the real intent of the performance management system itself?
The key lies in recognising that manager mindset requires change. Basic assumptions that make up a good performance cover the following:
- That no employee wants to do a shoddy job.
- That employees come to work to do a great job and be valued for their contributions.
- That good performance is a result of three things interacting and impacting one another — employee skill and competence; employee efforts and external conditions being very supportive or difficult.
- That employees do not like surprise pretty much like managers themselves. This means that if performance was an issue, they would like to know about it on time and get assistance for improvement, rather than being categorised as poor performers at the end of the year.
- That managers need to recognise their contribution in making performance happen or suffer. This is often known as “set-up-to-fail syndrome” where managers unconsciously set their employees up for failure due to their own assumptions and behaviours.
- That timely feedback on an on-going basis would almost always help employees improve their performance before it is too late. Annual appraisal review sessions are often too late to help improve any marginal performers.
What we see in many organisations is a very casual approach to delivering performance management instead of a strategic approach this all-too-important process deserves. Paying too much attention to prescribed ‘bell curve” is another cause for heart burn in many places.
The Mecca for bell curve or vitality curve was General Electric, but reportedly even GE has moved away from their original emphasis on bell curve/forced distribution towards a more pragmatic approach to doing it.
Where is the problem? It is in our (mis)understanding.
Addressing a group of middle and senior HR mangers in a workshop, I asked them how they would respond if a business leader does not want to execute on the prescribed bell curve for his team. Surprisingly, many who responded to the question took a simplistic approach saying they would try and convince that bell curve is the company policy and the business leader must adhere to it! After all, it is not as if the business leader does not know that bell curve is a company policy. After pressing for a more appropriate response, some of them responded by trying to reason out the purpose of the bell curve.
The primary purpose of forced distribution via bell curve is basically to “raise the performance bar” by relativising the performance so employees understand that their performance, while on an absolute basis may have been okay, requires improvement because other colleagues performing similar roles are delivering far superior performance. Even this message can be delivered very differently. Since line managers hear the “stick to the policy” explanation, they play the same tune with their employees instead of taking the discussion towards a more productive direction.
Raising the performance of people requires a passionate conversation about aspirations, abilities, talent, opportunities, resources and constraints. Managers who have consistently obtained superior performance understand this. They do not bring in excuses like “bell curve is our policy.”
Their conversations are focused on just few simple things, such as, how is the employee’s current performance as evidenced by the goals and objectives; how the employee can raise the performance next year; what new capabilities and knowledge will help the employee improve performance; and how the manager intends to support the employee in accomplishing superior performance.
These are simple, but intense conversations. Sincerity in making the employee more productive and successful is an important pre-requisite. This completely changes the quality of the performance management and takes the anxiety out of the situation.
Appraisal discussions are an opportunity for strengthening the manager-direct reports relationship and cooperation, not creating misunderstanding and unpleasantness. Leadership training modules focused on performance management should spend more time on positive conversations around performance, not tools, techniques, policies and procedures. When accomplished, people will not dread the reviews, but actually look forward to it.
C. Mahalingam is a leading HR Thought Leader in India. He was Executive Vice-President & Chief People Officer with Symphony Services Corporation and served in organisations like IBM, HP, Phillips, Scandent Technologies etc. He is now a Leadership Coach, HR Strategic Consultant and visiting faculty at some of IIM’s.
(This article was published on January 16, 2014)