Do You Manage By Making Employees Guess How They’re Doing, or Through Performance Appraisal?

Feb 3, 2009

When I supported the contract side of recruitment, it was sometimes necessary to share with temporary employees feedback from clients. It was more likely the case I would need to coach the direct supervisor to improve their communication with the temporary contractor and often this had the effect of improving their communication with the rest of their employees in turn. As we all know, there are lots of passive-aggressive department managers out there!

I’ve had a lot of experience writing performance appraisals for employees and reviewing performance appraisals written by other managers for their employees. I’ve spent a lot of time coaching managers on how to give constructive performance appraisals. So, I’m not surprised that many managers don’t use performance appraisals appropriately as a tool to give feedback to their employees. Often, I’ve heard managers vent about employees who aren’t meeting their expectations. In nearly all instances, I found performance appraisals were either not given to the employee or were written in such a manner as to be counterproductive. Even the administering of an otherwise ‘OK’ written appraisal can be detrimental to changing lacking behaviors by how the manager gives the appraisal.

There are ground rules to giving an effective performance appraisal.

First and foremost, give them, give them consistently, and give them on a regular and timely basis. Your employees should come to expect your feedback and know their performance is being reviewed by you in a measurable and timely manner. The performance appraisal process should not be about you having your ‘annual conversation’ with each employee but about the formal culmination of a review of their activities and accomplishments resulting from ongoing informal communication throughout the year. Often, it may be best to have formal mini-appraisals once a month or at the end of a project just to give your employee a gauge of how they are doing versus your expectations, with informal discussions taking place throughout the course of the month or project. This provides a constructive benchmark, which will help inspire your employee towards greater accomplishments, to make changes, or to decide in some cases that they are not capable of meeting your expectations.

A second ground rule in providing effective performance appraisals is to write and talk about specific and measurable actions. There should be no ambiguity about what you need from them and how and when your needs are to be met. In the case of an employee who is doing well, they should know exactly what it is they are doing well. I often see managers make the mistake of assuming an employee will be able to infer what they mean through vaguely constructed sentences. Don’t, because they won’t!

In the case an employee is not meeting reasonable expectations and you make the decision this is not the right job for them, there should be no surprises on the part of your employee. Don’t expect those vaguely worded performance appraisals to hold up under review when an unemployment claim is filed, because they will come back to haunt you!

A third rule to effective performance appraisals is to not compare your employee’s situation to a situation in yours or someone else’s life. Your employee may resent you comparing their situation to yours or someone else’s. This sounds like common sense, but just like the difference between being good at Jeopardy from the comfort of your armchair and being a deer in the headlights when you get on the show, managers can easily grasp for words when they feel uncomfortable in the performance-appraisal meeting. This is often one of those situations in which it helps to work roughly from a script and even practice what you’re are going to say before the appraisal meeting. Anticipate comments or questions your employee is likely to give you in the meeting. Remember that if you have to give negative feedback, a defensive employee stops listening and the message you are trying to convey will not be absorbed.

Following some simple steps and disciplining yourself to provide consistent and timely communication of performance appraisals will often result in your employees as a whole being happier and performing at a higher level. At the least, you will become a more effective coach to your team. Who knows: maybe the employee you thought was terrible turns out to be one of your star performers!