Performance Appraisals (The Easiest Way to Fail)

In our organization we managers use the December month to produce the performance appraisals of our employees. Or maybe I should say the performance appraisals for our employees… Because it's not only the CxO/HR people who need those evaluations for conjuring up our people's new compensations. The employees themselves also value and require a written evaluation of their performance in the past year.

And the managers burdened with this task?

Well, they are caught between a rock and a hard place, because for a manager the employee appraisals are the easiest way to fail. When upper-level management and lower-level employees are involved, and fingers are pointing both ways, managers usually find themselves right in between. Evaluating employees is about as much fun as sitting on the Israeli-Palestinian border with an umbrella, and a sign saying "I'm not on either side".

One week before I had to evaluate the managers working for me, I realized I had too little information to produce reliable performance appraisals. So, quick-witted and impulsive as I am, I decided to augment my lack of information with 360 degree feedback. The concept of 360 degree feedback is simple: You interview a number of people who are working directly with or for the person you're evaluating, and you ask them their opinion about this person. Of course, you must take care to select honest raters, select the best interview method, and guard yourself against negativity, inexperience and overhead. But, assuming that you've considered both the good and bad sides of 360 degree feedback, it is a great tool to get better feedback.

I needed this 360 degree feedback to solve my problem of not having enough information, but I understood it would cost me a lot of time to carry out properly. Therefore I didn't want to impose this method on anyone else in the organization. For my fellow managers, and the ones working for me, killing me would probably be much less trouble than the amount of work this method requires. The result was that some managers (those with some spare time on their hands) followed my example, while others simply produced performance appraisals by digging only in their own memories and opinions. Which is still the traditional and less time-consuming way.

Another thing that I wanted to consider carefully is that some people might not like to be evaluated in such a way. The people that I was evaluating were all managers themselves. And I think it's only fair for me to ask my people's subordinates how they think about their own managers, when they know their managers are rating them as well. However, it's quite another thing for my managers to ask their non-managing team members to rate each other. Don't you think?

Well, that's where I might have made a mistake…

It turned out that people were very positive about the 360 degree feedback method. They appreciated that I wanted to know their opinions, and the feedback I got was fair and constructive. But people were not happy about the fact that this interesting new appraisal method was not being applied for everyone. They thought it was unfair that some departments were able to rate their manager, while other departments were not. And some (non-managing) people regretted that they were not being evaluated using 360 degree feedback. They had preferred to be evaluated by their peers as well!

Like I said, appraisals are the easiest way to fail…

Still, I think we can be proud that people want to receive feedback on their performance from their peers. It means our employees have trust in each other's honest opinions. And I believe that good employees should desire to be evaluated with the 360 degree feedback method. As a professional you must tell your manager that you expect to evaluated in a professional way. I told my CEO. And I'm glad that he listened and asked people for feedback about me. It really didn't hurt. That much. For a moment.

So, don't settle for just your manager's point of view. Just don't tell him I told you, because he won't like the added workload!

I'm glad I underestimated our employees. And I regret that I didn't think of introducing 360 degree feedback earlier, so that my fellow managers had time to implement it as well. Next year we'll do better, I promise. Though I'm quite sure we managers will blunder, stumble and fail in brand new and unexpected ways.

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  • Surya Suravarapu

    I guess this is perhaps an issue —
    “One week before I had to evaluate the managers working for me, I realized I had too little information to produce reliable performance appraisals”
    In my view, regardless of the feedback mechanism, feedback is something that has to given and received at more frequent intervals than once an year thing. When this happens employee will not have any shocks or surprises at the year-end “formal” appraisal process.
    Not only that, with more frequent feedback loop employee would get an opportunity to make any adjustments sooner than later.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    You are correct, but I was not talking about informal feedback. I was talking about formal feedback, with *written* forms and procedures. You don’t want to do that more than twice a year (as we do).
    Of course, *informal* feedback should be given regularly. We have one-on-ones, retrospectives, stand-ups and everything. But those still don’t cover everything that’s needed in a formal appraisal.

  • John Hunter

    Great post. The formal performance appraisal and all that goes along with it is the problem, not feedback. But while people claim the performance appraisal process helps feedback I don’t know many people that actually believe it is an effective method for feedback. Limiting feedback to once a year or once every 6 months is a horrible idea. My favorite resource on this is from a friend, Peter Scholtes:

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Yes, I’d love to abolish the performance appraisals. They are a real pain in the backside. But I don’t see how top management and HR will ever agree to any alternatives. It’s worth checking out though. Thanks.

  • Pawel Brodzinski

    It’s not like everyone would like appraisals if they were 360 degree ones. I know a bunch of people who don’t react to performance appraisals in any way no matter how hard you try.
    On the other hand it’s quite often situation managers don’t want to get feedback from their teams.
    Personally I’d love to see 360 degree feedback yet being a manager is quite a tough task to receive honest feedback. Unfortunately the bigger the company is the chances rise you’ll see more of office politics instead of honest judgement of your work.

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