Managing Performance – Your New Years Resolution

It's that time of year again for many organisations: the annual performance review/appraisal! The 'big meeting' that we've prepared for, psyched ourselves up for, the one people will ask me about afterwards and the one that will determine what happens in a number of areas of my work-life... and I may or may not be happy about this!

Although we at Lightbulb spend a lot of time with organisations looking to go in a more dynamic, if needed, when needed, day-to-day route with performance appraisal, it always surprises me that decision-makers also then say something like 'but can there be a end of year element that captures everything in writing' (and on multiple pieces of paper with lots of formality). But why is this? Why, when you have chosen an approach that is much more progressive, real-life, current and productive would you still then want to harp back to elements of 'how we have always done it' ?

Well, two reasons come to mind:

1) The link to pay and bonus. It is still common that organisations want to rate people's performance across a year so it can be handily converted on an excel spreadsheet into a % or £ award. It just feels very fair doesnt it: but it isn't! Often the rating I get is subjectively applied with all sorts of bias (particularly the 'recency' effect) and most people will think they deserved a rating one higher than the one they were awarded in any event. Things I did 10 months ago are forgotton, my manager may have moved on mid-year, objectives we agreed are no longer relevant and so on. So many potential variables that get in the way and make the annual pay/bonus review anything but fair. So don't do your annual appraisal for that reason.

2) Evidence for the tribunal! Here's the secret reason that many won't admit to: We need the 'audit trail' for when you as my team member go bad - when you become an underperformer and we then need to protect ourselves against any successful legal claim! Because why else would I need to hold paperwork on you that could be years old? When else would I actually go back to an appraisal you and I did together one, two or three years ago - does that actually happen in real-life? Many decisions made around my performance, role, succession potential etc will not be made looking at a historical document - it will be borne of discussions around how I am doing now, my achievements (which an annual appraisal may not have completely captured) and my potential. I know this to be true because when I push the point on why any of this paperwork is needed, the response I get it is 'because its evidence' - and when I say for what purpose, 8 times out of 10 I am told 'in case there are performance problems later on'. Firstly it would be very rare for an employment tribunal judge to reflect on years of appraisal comments as opposed to what has been going on more recently (including recent disciplinary warnings, performance against objectives in recent months etc); secondly, the advent of GDPR and tighter controls on data make me wonder whether an employee would even want to consent to years of performance evaluation notes being held on their files!

Two more reasons we cling on to annual reviews…

One: The performance and development objectives

If I have an annual appraisal I generally have to agree objectives with my boss for the year ahead: it might be that HR says that these should be updated as necessary from time-to-time but we know in reality that this doesn't happen. Those objectives are frozen in time and we tend to ignore them until the 'half-year review', by which point priorities have changed and in some cases the manager has moved on elsewhere!

Why are objectives six or twelve months long in any event? In real-life I may need to agree a priority that is five weeks or five months in length - can everything really be neatly packaged into these 6/12 timeframes? The intention is probably around simplicity for the appraisal process across the year but ends up being a pointless exercise for the sake of filling in paperwork. What are the hallmarks of and criteria for 'objectives' anyway: why do some make it to the appraisal paperwork and some don't? If I give somebody something to do and a deadline to do it couldn't that be described as an objective? I don't add each of these delegated pieces of work to the 'objectives for the year ahead' section of the appraisal each time they arise otherwise the appraisal would end up being hundreds of pages long!

We have also had the awful SMART cliché drummed into us for years - nothing wrong with it in essence but managers need more guidance than just being told to 'agree SMART objectives'. In my experience 80% of objectives just aren't specific, measurable etc and are instead full of jargon and subjective nonsense such as 'lead the project'; 'successfully roll-out X' etc. These objectives often lead to the 'was it achieved' debate - and if this debate lasts more than four seconds then its probably not a SMART objective; it was probably just a piece of advice!

Two: The paperwork or online systems/apps

Appraisals have a lot of paperwork in a lot of cases - and if not on paper then its on some fancy, millennial-focused app or system from the latest start-up. Looks great but still means I need to have conversations with my team member and then go online and update various fields (same as filling out the traditional paperwork really!). All of these things add up to another thing for managers to have to do, no matter how funky or innovative it looks. If I'm ok with how my direct report is doing and they are ok can't we just have the brief conversation in a lot of cases: why is it a one-size-fits-all approach where I have to jump though all the process and admin hoops for all my people, all of the time?

Adding in 360 degree feedback, 'shout-outs for good work' and other 'social media-style' mechanisms to the appraisal process is all very well but can add up to a lot of info and data (which may also sometimes appear to be contradictory!). The employee strives to 'produce the tangible evidence' of their good work with all this stuff but often it's having to be done partly because of those badly-worded objectives that haven't helped the individual build their 'business case' for more pay, bonus or whatever. Fixing our objective-setting skills may be a better way of dealing with things: salespeople have either smashed target or they haven't - things are clear, tangible and do not need lots of other gimmicks to help 'log good work': non-sales needs to adopt some of the same approach.

So, make it your new years resolution never to have the annual performance review!

If needed, when needed managing performance - no more 'one-size-fits-all' bureaucracy - welcome to CHINWAG!

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