Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Performance Appraisal Meetings

Actions to take: Appraisal meetings are one of the most awkward tasks bosses and employees go through each year. Make it a little less awkward with the following advice: Never introduce new information in an appraisal; send the appraisal document to the employee ahead of the meeting; plan your meeting; don't expect your employees to do much talking; and spend some of your time in the meeting giving a personal thanks to your employees.

Okay, we wrote the appraisals! We spent every spare minute over the past month getting these done. The work is over, right? 

Sadly, our work is never finished. There are always ways to be a little bit better. In the case of appraisals, one of the biggest areas for improvement, ironically, has virtually no bearing on the official appraisal. Most organizations require you to have an appraisal meeting with the employee to discuss what your have written about the their work. These meetings can be a major factor in how your employees interpret their appraisals. Done well, you can smooth over any minor frustrations and leave the employee focused on the positives from their review. Done poorly, the employee will interpret everything in a negative light (and blame you for it). 

Here are several ways to improve your chances of making a positive impression with your employees about their annual evaluations:

  • No surprises: When you introduce new information at a year-end review, you are going to get resentment. Your employee will feel like you are pulling a dirty trick on them. And they will be right. It is bad management when you don't give people a chance to improve before dinging them on an official document. Search "performance review horror stories." Virtually every example will be people frustrated about an issue that the boss had never mentioned before. If you have not spoken to your employee about it earlier in the year (presumably soon after the issue occurred), leave it off the appraisal. It doesn't matter how big the issue is; you missed your chance. Appraisals are review. 
  • Send appraisal ahead of time: It doesn't need to be far in advance. Just enough time for an employee to master their reactions before talking with you about it. If the meeting is in the afternoon, that morning is fine. The emotional stakes are high in performance meetings. People are going to be defensive and sensitive to any threat. Even a "perfectly fine" appraisal might disappoint an employee who thinks they are a top performer. It is a favor to both of you to let the employee have that reaction in the relative privacy of their desk.
  • Have a structure to the meeting: Performance appraisal meetings are already awkward. Everything is written and decided by that point. In some sense, there is no real purpose to the meeting (The purpose is largely HR driven, pushing managers who never talk about performance to do it at least once per year. For followers of this blog, that is not a problem.). Plan some kind of structure to the meeting so that you two aren't staring at each other. These meetings don't need to be complicated—just make sure you have a clear opening, middle, and closing.
    • I recommend that you spend the bulk of the meeting highlighting the most important/meaningful parts of the appraisal. Yes, you are basically just reviewing the appraisal, which is itself a review of past feedback you've given. Put the comments into more natural language and speak directly to the person (i.e. don't just read off the page).
  • Don't expect much from the employee: It is good to ask the employee their thoughts somewhere near the end of the meeting. That said, don't expect anything ground-breaking. Remember, you took weeks to think about and compose these appraisals. Your employee shouldn't be expected to come up with anything especially insightful off the cuff. Also expect to do most of the talking throughout the meeting. As you go through the appraisal, feel free to ask if they have questions or comments, but don't try to "make it a conversation." First, it isn't really. Second, again, you've had time to think all this through and they have not.
Bonus tip:
  • Great time for thanks: The appraisal meeting is a fantastic time for praise and thanks. As mentioned above, there is not a lot of "official" business related to the appraisal itself. If you've effectively minimized the tension of these meetings, they have something of a high school end-of-year vibe. The mood is excellent for giving some personal thanks and saying what you appreciate about the employee. Do this, and your employees will leave the meeting feeling satisfied and proud, even if you were obliged to give everyone middling scores.

Average bosses tend to make an already-tense part of the year worse in their appraisal meetings. They commit a variety of managerial sins, from springing new negative feedback on the employee to simply having nothing planned. Better bosses think through the appraisal meeting with the same consideration they used for the appraisal itself. They recognize that having a positive meeting will do almost as much for the employee as getting a positive written appraisal. 

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