Appraisals That Bite

At the weekend, anyone who follows me on Twitter will have noted I gave a rather bland one word comment (that word would be ‘interesting’) on a blog post by Luis GonçalvesThe Myth Of Organization Improvement Using Performance Appraisals. Luis asked me to expand on my one word – so I promised to write the blog post that you are currently reading.  

A little later I’m going to get into what I think of the appraisal mechanism and why, but first why that one word comment of ‘Interesting’.  The first reason I found the article interesting was because, although I knew the roots of appraisal reviews, I didn't KNOW the roots of appraisal reviews! Anyone who has talked management style with me or visited one of the servant leadership courses I’ve either presented or assisted on will be aware of most of what is about to follow. Like most I was aware that the appraisal mechanism – the carrot and stick approach was rooted in manufacturing industries, but I can honestly say that if I read the roots as Luis lays them out back to Ford and Taylor then I had glossed over it and not retained the information. The second reason I found the article interesting was that Luis’ summary at the end of the article aligns with my view of the appraisal mechanism, so I would like to share why I am cynical of appraisal mechanisms.

 

Timeliness

This is one of the biggest issues – the mechanism encourages / allows poor managers to hold off feedback. Like most people, I've been through work life where you see the quantity of work peak and trough within a single role and had different managers who have had differing expectations. I can think of one manager who looked at a piece of my work and turned round and said ‘it’s a bit s@@t isn't it’ not the feedback I had expected, but, as I didn't agree, I asked why and we could pursue a dialogue of where he felt it was deficient. A fast and short feedback loop, the work was tweaked to align with his expectations as well as my own and I enjoyed working with this manager for a while.  

So let me write about the appraisal that bit, I've had only one really bad appraisal experience and I remember it well as it was the year that my mum died of cancer. My mum had a long and hard battle, during the final couple of years she was in and out of hospital very regularly, both for the chemotherapy and for emergency moments as the disease worked its way around her body. During the period where her death was getting closer there were a few times where work peaks coincided with bad times for mum and mum won, rather than staying late or working through a lunch there were several occasions that I prioritized my family. My boss knew what was going and nothing was said at the time, but around 3 months later (after mum had passed away) at appraisal time he heaped a load of negative feedback on me for not being my normal self during this period. Even worse he leveraged my reluctance to engage in out of hours work during the period as an excuse to emphasize the role of a co-worker he was really close with, I knew it and he knew I knew. I didn't appeal or argue the appraisal, I just took the opportunity to move on. I didn't want to work for someone who a) doesn't give feedback positive or negative when it’s needed, and b) was happy to line the way for his friends in such a biased way. I can honestly say that I have had managers who are hundreds of miles away, a couple have been thousands of miles away in other continents who have been more engaged and very quick with feedback compared to this guy who sat in an office 50 feet away.

This is one of the prime issues with the annual appraisal – anyone who actually only gives feedback come appraisal time is doing a disservice, to his team, to himself and to the business he works in. We need to inspect and adapt far more quickly, so we need regular appraisal of the work and regular updates to the objectives you are going to work on. Even when it comes to relationship with your leadership a short cycle time is better. I’m glad to say that all the managers I've worked with since and team mates too have all believed in short regular feedback – it’s what works, and it really helps individuals to gain confidence in their work, in the knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses and also in coming forward to try and improve where they are weak.

Motivation

So let us go back to the carrot and stick discussion, motivation for people is complex, everyone has different triggers for motivation that are influenced both internally and externally. To paraphrase others on this subject, once the work being performed moves away from purely mechanical roles, the carrot and stick reward mechanism doesn’t work properly. Simply paying someone more if they create more or ‘better’ code won’t result in a better product. This means that appraisal / pay mechanism also becomes contentious. It can get even worse when there are periods that there isn't money on the table, because the feedback mechanism has been twisted, people are then wondering what the point of an appraisal is when there is no real impact on the money in their pocket.  The annual appraisal then de-motivates people rather than improving motivation.

Some simple questions – when someone has completed a piece of outstanding work (they know it’s good and feel good about it) should some recognition, even if only in the form of a ‘good job’ statement be sooner or later? Without regular feedback positive and negative motivation is guaranteed to decline. 

The best annual appraisals I've had have been in the order of minutes because all the feedback has happened through the year.  I can think of one real positive from an appraisal where my team leader asked if I could send an email summary of what I thought of the year before. I sent him a few comments and my list of the work we had done (I tend to keep my list as a mindmap so that I can cross reference and adjust as I go through the year). Although, he had been involved in near enough every item as they were worked the list at end of year looked astonishingly large. 

Individual versus team appraisal

I’m not going to detail team versus individual appraisals as I think the Scrum Alliance summarise it well.

We all do the crazy exercise of rating team members every year. And, looking back at a software development industry that's almost 50 years old, we know certain things for sure: Software is built by teams, not individuals. Moreover, each individual needs to actively collaborate to produce quality software. This means that everyone on the team needs to take collective ownership and help each other, because the motive is not to be a hero but to build an end product of the utmost quality and predictability.

You can read the full article here:  http://www.scrumalliance.org/community/articles/2012/march/agile-performance-appraisals 

Conclusion

Annual appraisals don’t work well, they don’t motivate people, if anything they can de-motivate people, as Luis notes, they don’t improve a modern organisation. If you have to do them, then they should be no more than a re-cap of the feedback that has been given throughout the year, keep them short and succinct.