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What your people managers must do differently during appraisals?

For many organizations, conducting performance appraisals, or having what some are now calling “performance conversations”, elicits a sense of dread in both the people managers and the employees. The good news is, there are ways to create a valuable forward-looking discussion that improves engagement, retention, and shapes culture. Consider the process on two levels; the macro-level, which involves the company-wide process and structures that support people managers, and the micro-level, which involves managers having a baseline understanding of how to deliver and receive feedback during these conversations as well as throughout the year.  

The process and structures that support performance conversations matter. Commonly, organizations will create an appraisal template to be completed with some instructions and a calendar for finishing the reviews, and that is the extent of it. While you don’t want to over-engineer the process, to make the outcome a thoughtful and motivating one, consider the following:

Is the objective of the process clear and easy to articulate? For example, is the objective to provide employees with feedback about past performance, discuss ongoing development, and gather insights about the employee’s experiences during the performance period? This sounds familiar and probably standard practice for most companies, yet does it drive improved performance, or does it lessen the anxiety managers and employees feel when the time comes to prepare. Is the process used to determine changes in compensation? In either case, that should be made clear.

Since feedback, positive and negative, should be given to employees in real time and not saved for an annual conversation, there shouldn’t be a gap between what the employee believes they will hear and what the manager delivers; does your process test for this? Some companies are rethinking their objectives, and some are scrapping the process altogether, in favor of  alternative approaches to creating ongoing bi-directional feedback. However, with clear objectives and the structures in place to support the process, there is still an opportunity to make these conversations more valuable for everyone. 

Perhaps a more forward-looking and engaging objective would be stated this way, “we want to continually enhance individual, team, leadership, and company performance and as one part of that, we think it is important to invest time (add frequency here) to exchange and align on feedback, set SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely), explore career development opportunities, and revisit compensation.” This language introduces a more bi-directional tone and establishes individual performance as only one aspect of organizational performance; it also frames the effort as an investment, rather than an obligatory exercise.

What is the right cadence for a performance conversation? There are schools of thought suggesting the more frequent the better, however if managers are giving constructive feedback in real-time, a more career development-oriented conversation can be effective — not rushed — when done annually. One of the reasons managers struggle with the process is because many companies have made it a “time-of-year” exercise so when leaders have a substantial number of direct reports the whole thing turns into an onerous project tied to a calendar of deadlines. Not only do they have to anticipate some difficult conversations, but they also must put other priorities aside and try to invest thoughtful time into preparing and having the conversations. What usually ends up happening is documents are copied from prior appraisals and modified; all sorts of cutting and pasting is done to save time. Discussion meetings (appraisals/reviews) are cut into shorter lengths of time to make sure deadlines are met. If the reason behind a “time-of-year” process is to align compensation changes with budget or financial reporting periods, consider uncoupling the two. Let managers spread out these discussions over the course of the year by employee anniversary date or other methods. By having fewer discussions more frequently, the process isn’t overwhelming, and managers are continually practicing their tradecraft. 

Do managers and employees have the information they need? Whatever your stated objectives are, make sure managers and employees have the information they need to make the conversation a constructive and non-subjective one. For example, if continual improvement of team performance is part of your objective, managers and employees should have access to the targets and actual team performance on key performance metrics. This allows for an informed and transparent discussion where managers can gain insights into what the employee thinks contributed to achieving the targets… or missing them. Another example might be organizations that want to collect feedback from other collaborators, such as project stakeholders, peers, direct reports, matrixed reporting relationships, and more. There are plenty of inexpensive tools for collecting “360-degree feedback” so if this is an important component of your process, allow time to complete the step and give employees time to review the feedback before the meeting. The more transparent, the less overall anxiety and more trusting the culture.

Are your people managers trained on preparing and holding these meetings in support of the stated objectives? This is where the macro-level structure is married to the micro-level conversations. Consider what every people manager in your organization needs to know and make it part of onboarding with regular opportunities for refresher training. Here are some recommended items for the curriculum: 

  • Understand the Objectives 
  • How to Prepare
  • Real Time Feedback and Aligning Perception
  • Important Data
  • Active Listening
  • Setting SMART Goals
  • Language, Dos and Don’ts
  • Setting Expectations
  • Creating a Career Development Plan

Again, the intention with this training is to make sure the conversations are engaging, and something everyone can look forward to. You may want to include a self-appraisal for employees to complete and share before the scheduled conversation so managers can compare what they have prepared to the perception of their employee. When there are misalignments, it may mean the manager isn’t providing timely feedback, or not communicating that feedback effectively. Training on how to test for this alignment and how to reset expectations during the conversation is important and an area of opportunity for many new managers. Also, understanding what language triggers negative emotions rather than a constructive conversation is not intuitive to all managers so ongoing training to reinforce the “dos and don’ts” can make a big difference. Finally, give managers a chance to practice these skills by investing time for them to meet with each other and role play the conversations; it can be a lot of fun and leaders benefit when learning from each other.

If annual performance conversations have become an unwelcome interruption to your already fast-paced work environment it is something you can change. Don’t be afraid to apply the same innovative thinking you use to shape your products and services. Build something your employees will boast about when they are telling their friends and family what it is like to work at your company. You may just find it becomes a competitive advantage.

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