Performance management: what do you talk about in an appraisal?

I’ve been asked this question twice recently by journalists preparing articles on performance management. On both occasions I have found myself drawing a simple diagram that I thought might be worth sharing.

What's in an appraisal diagram

At the heart of any appraisal there will be a discussion about achievement including things like KPIs and objectives. Basically: “what have you done, and how does that contribute to our organisational goals?” How much that inner pink circle dominates the whole discussion has a lot to do with organisational culture.

I’ve seen environments where literally the only discussion is about “have you hit your sales targets or not?” That tends to make the appraisal a very one way process and end up with a binary “pass or fail” type outcome.

How much further the discussion goes will vary heavily from organisation to organisation. For me the extensions lie in one of four directions. Each of these outer “pizza slices” can exist in smaller or larger quantities – including not at all…

In values-led organisations, behaviours matter as much as results – ie how you achieve things is as important as what you achieve. In truth though many managers find discussing people’s behaviour much tougher than talking about results. It can be emotional and touch on the individual’s core values and beliefs. Inexperienced managers with low confidence can find this really tough – and as a result avoid the anticipated pain by dodging the discussion. Or they handle it badly and what should be a positive coaching intervention turns into conflict.

How much is discussed about development varies too. In some cases it will be only about immediate needs in the current role. For me, good managers see part of their job as nurturing long term talent within the business. That is about much more than a quick fix to improve someone’s current achievement in today’s job.

That leads us neatly to career management. I’ve seen lots of blogs and articles recently about whether, in an age where promotions are fewer and further apart, you should open this can of worms in an appraisal. If you don’t it becomes the “elephant in the room”. And if you don’t talk to your people about careers you can count on them eventually talking to someone else. Talking career is essential to engagement and retention.

Finally there’s reward and recognition. Some organisations directly link pay and performance (ie your rating drives your pay rise) others keep the two apart. Either way recognition is critical too. I always ask my team “what have you done that I haven’t fully recognised?” There’s nearly always something they are proud of that, in a busy and fast paced business, I’ve either missed or not taken enough time to discuss with them. Time and time again they tell me that recognition means so much more to them than money.

Where appraisals so often go wrong is where manager and appraisee have totally different expectations of the discussion they are about to have. So if you got them both to re-draw my diagram and change the sizes of the elements to reflect how they would like to see the balance of the discussion the results would be dramatically different. For example a manager who wants to talk almost exclusively about achievement and behaviours and an employee who wants to talk career and development. That’s why, for me, communication and expectation management are critical to any performance system.

Ultimately managers who are great at driving performance talk to their people about all five things on an on-going basis. They don’t store things up for a once or twice a year meeting -they treat it as a continuous process. The appraisal is then a good “wrap up” of what’s happened and what needs to be done going forward. It avoids catalytic and confrontational meetings and everyone knows what to expect and where they stand.

In the Autumn we’ll be launching a new paper entitled “The eight dysfunctions of performance management” based on our recent work in this area. It explores some of the common reasons why performance systems fail to deliver – many of which have little to do with “process”. If you’d like to get an early copy please register your interest by emailing and we’ll send you a copy free of charge as soon as it is published.

Ian Gooden
Chief Executive

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