Appraisals can often be a catalyst for conflict or cynicism. This is because they are often poorly prepared for and are perceived by the recipient as falling short of their expectations in terms of providing valuable feedback on performance, setting meaningful goals and agreeing a path for future development. The following are a few of the common types of rater error that can result in inaccurate or subjective appraisal and assessment data:

  • 'Recency' - basing the assessment on recent events rather than the whole review period;
  • Central tendency - sitting on the fence and giving average scores across the board;
  • Horns or halo effect - giving a damning or glowing overall assessment based on only one aspect of performance;
  • 'Like me' effect - 'this person went to the same school or university as me, so must be marvellous';
  • Crony effect- 'he's a friend of mine so I'll say nice things about him and he'll say nice things about me';
  • Leniency - 'if I say what I really think I may hurt this person's feelings, so I'll be nice'.

More often than not appraisals fall down because SMART objectives were not set at an earlier appraisal - with the result that there is nothing concrete to measure performance against for the period under review. For an objective to be SMART it should be:

  • Specific - clear and unambiguous;
  • Measurable - based on quantifiable indicators of success rather than subjective qualitative measures;
  • Appropriate - relevant to the job and business objectives;
  • Realistic - achievable both in terms of the individual's skills and capabilities and the business environment;
  • Timebound - to be achieved within a specific timescale.

Preparation for the appraisal meeting

Adequate preparation is essential to assure that an appraisal meeting is successful and achieves a meaningful outcome. Both manager and appraisee should prepare for the meeting in advance - ideally completing a structured written assessment and self-assessment that can be reviewed and considered by the other party before the meeting.

The Appraisal Meeting

Allow adequate time for the meeting and ensure that you are not going to be interrupted, either in person or by telephone calls. Demonstrate that you take the appraisee seriously and are genuinely interested in his or her performance and development. Try to put yourself in his or her position and be sympathetic to any ideas or concerns raised.

Performance against objectives set at the previous appraisal should be considered. Obstacles and learning reported, discussed and suggestions for both development & training activity and fresh objectives for the next appraisal period put forward. 

Wherever possible, the appraisee should be empowered to suggest forward objectives rather than have these imposed by his or her manager. Such an approach gives ownership of the objectives to the individual. This in turn creates a greater implied personal accountability for the achievement of objectives than there would be if they had been externally imposed.

Dealing with issues of poor performance

Many managers avoid dealing with the issue of poor performance. This is because they may believe that by doing so they may de-motivate the individual concerned or they believe that any such discussion is likely to be confrontational. In reality, if someone is failing to achieve acceptable job performance he or she is likely to recognise this and be relieved to have the opportunity to discuss this and explore ways of improving. Such discussions are only likely to become confrontational if the manager attacks the individual as opposed to addressing the behaviour underlying the poor performance. Attacking the individual will achieve little more than undermining his or her confidence and may well de-motivate and cause resentment. A primary objective of a meeting where poor performance is addressed should be that it concludes with the individual motivated to change. A useful approach to raising the issue of poor performance or undesirable behaviour in a meeting is given below:

  • Firstly agree a point of principle (e.g. "Do you agree that in order for us to retain business we need to deliver what we say we will deliver and when we say we will deliver to our customers?" - there can be no other answer than "yes");
  • Ask how the individual's action/behaviour fits in with the principle (e.g. "So how do you feel that the report you prepared for XYZ plc fits in with this principle, in that it contained factual inaccuracies and was delivered a week late? - again there can be no other answer than "It doesn't");
  • "So what do you think you can do differently to ensure that this doesn't happen again?" - this moves the conversation forward on a positive note focusing on identifying a solution rather than concentrating on the problem.