Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Performance Appraisals are Easy

Actions to take: Give casual, frequent feedback as this blog recommends. Note each piece of feedback when you do. At appraisal time, consult those notes and use the feedback for concrete examples of each employee's behavior.

In my first year as a boss, I dreaded performance appraisals more than any other task. I was supervising over twenty people. I hadn't learned the fundamentals of management discussed in this blog. I didn't really know how well my employees were performing. I wanted to write accurate, meaningful appraisals, but I just didn't have the tools or knowledge to do it. It left me paralyzed. I'm embarrassed to admit that my appraisals were routinely two or three months overdue. 

We make everything so unnecessarily challenging for managers. As with most managerial behaviors, I dreaded appraisals because no one took the time to give me comprehensive training on how to do them well. Sure, I was given an overview of the rating system and a few examples of what other managers had written. If you spend an hour showing someone which notes correspond to which keys on a piano, that doesn't mean they know how to play. Let me save you some of the managerial heartache I went through by explaining how to write an effective appraisal.

Performance appraisals are easy—if you give frequent performance feedback to your team throughout the year. 

The challenging thing about appraisals is that you are trying to remember everything for every employee all at once. Most appraisals either break out ratings based on categories of job duty or core competencies (teamwork, resourcefulness, motivation, etc.). For every employee, you have to decide how well they accomplish that category, and you usually have to justify it with at least a few sentences about their work. Your brain is not a database. You cannot select the keywords "teamwork" and "[employee name]" and expect your brain to return all relevant results. Your brain might do this okay once or twice, but this sort of thinking tires us out very quickly. You will be floundering for meaningful things to say by the 4th section of the appraisal. 

Bosses typically overcome this challenge with two equally ineffective strategies. First, they resort to generic language. We can't think of anything particularly meaningful to write, so we just don't. The deadline for these appraisals is fast approaching, and we've got 12-20 of them to do. We compromise by putting something platitudinous that no one can disagree with. The second strategy is to copy-paste the same language on multiple employees, making sure to change the name. If we write something that is generic, but sounds pretty good, we end up using it for everybody. If you are a manager who has done more than 50 appraisals, I guarantee you have done this. Prove me wrong with a comment if you like. 

The point of an appraisal is to assess the employee's effectiveness over the prior year. Both of the above strategies utterly fail in that goal. There is a more effective way. It also happens to be even easier. You'll be done with your appraisals faster than your colleagues, and the content will be more meaningful.

If you follow the advice of this blog, you give small, casual performance feedback to your employees throughout the year. That feedback will be the basis for your year-end appraisals. Here is the process:

  1. Each time you give feedback, just make a 1-sentence note of it. I use the same documentation for feedback as I do for weekly one-on-one meeting notes. If the feedback happened outside the meeting, just mark it somewhere in that week's one-on-one notes. I tag it "FB" to conveniently find it later.
  2. At year end, scan through that documentation, pull every note that says "FB," and put them in a list. If you keep paper notes, this may take as much as an hour. If you transfer your notes to a digital resource, ctrl+F will make quick work of this. 
  3. You now have a list of, ideally, at least 50 pieces of feedback (even 20 pieces of feedback will put you way ahead of your colleagues). Now, just slot them into the performance appraisal categories. For instance, you may have noted feedback from march saying, "FB: + Ben contributed innovative idea to new service model plan." That might go under "resourcefulness." 
  4. Once finished, you'll have several pieces of information about each category of the appraisal. From there, it is simple work to decide how to rate the employee. You will easily see the employee who has two or three times as much positive feedback as others in the "teamwork" category, or the employee whose only feedback on "motivation" relates to several problems throughout the year.

This method for writing appraisals benefits everyone. It is vastly more accurate than using your recollection. It uses concrete examples of their work—both the employee and the HR department are going to like that. And it saves you time and energy. 

Average bosses struggle with performance appraisals. They are overburdened by the process and do mediocre work, like the college student who waits until the last night to write a term paper. Better bosses spread the work throughout the entire year. They use comprehensive notes to write better, faster, easier appraisals that satisfy everyone. 

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