The problem with appraisals

The problem with appraisals

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By Chris Barez-Brown
One of the single most disempowering experiences we can have as employees is to feel as if we are out of control of our performance and our development. To be free at work we need to be able to own our future, and to do that we need to be in control of how we grow and how we make sense of how well we are doing.
Progress in meaningful work is a primary motivator. We need it.
Some of the most ridiculous things I see in many businesses are their antiquated personal appraisal processes. I can only assume they are designed to extinguish all hope and make staff feel thoroughly miserable about the work they do.
Back in 1965 the Harvard Business Review revealed that performance appraisals don’t work. This conclusion was based on a landmark study by Herbert Meyer, Emanuel Kay and John French, Jr, that tested the effectiveness of the staff appraisals at General Electric. Since then numerous studies have reinforced this finding, and yet after decades of research 93 per cent of companies still use annual appraisals.
A recent US poll of almost 3,000 people found that 98 per cent believe their annual performance review is unnecessary. A quarter of those polled were HR professionals, and yet these appraisals still go on.
It’s not that staff development is pointless. Quite the contrary. According to the research and advisory services provider Bersin & Associates, organizations with a strong learning culture have 37 per cent greater employee productivity. But unfortunately annual appraisals don’t get you there. If anything they wreck it.

And let’s not even talk about 360° feedback.
Well, OK then, let’s. The disaster known as 360° feedback is a process whereby feedback is collated from peers, subordinates, bosses, yourself and even externally. On paper it sounds great as more perspectives should be more useful, and these assessments sound like a very scientific way to make sure we all learn as much as we can, but frankly most of them are the devil’s work. Poorly designed 360° feedback (and most are poorly designed and poorly delivered) can contribute to disengagement, frustration, and downright pissiness. In many cases such processes lead to a decline in performance as well as resentment building towards the company. This is today’s equivalent of the ducking stool: it’s inhumane and ill conceived, regardless of the outcome.
There are many problems with such approaches, not least the fact the appraisals and feedback usually only happen once a year – around the time of pay negotiations. No wonder there’s an extra bristle in the air when we know that our children’s education is at stake.
Not only that, but the anonymity of the feedback removes all context, making it at best useless and at worst destructive.
For us to be as fantastic as we can be, and truly be leading our own development, we need to know how we are doing every single day.
Years ago I had the pleasure of working with Dan Walker, who was head of talent at Apple. He was quite a radical and had banned annual appraisals at Apple. He used to go around the company asking people how they were doing. If they couldn’t answer that question, well, he would go to their boss and shout at them. He believed that it was the boss’s responsibility to make sure that everybody, every day, knew how he or she was performing.
I used to agree that the boss should carry the can, but now I think differently. There are far too many poor bosses in this world for us to rely upon them to tell us how we are doing. If we rely on them, we have given up our freedom. When our learning is in somebody else’s hands, it can become irregular and erratic, and it is intrinsically biased. When we own it, we become remarkable and our energy and commitment can go through the roof. It’s also incredibly easy to do.

Ask yourself

Every time you’ve done something that you want to learn from – run a meeting, pitched an idea, recruited somebody – ask two simple questions.
  1. What did I do brilliantly?
  2. What can I do even better?

If you ask these questions every day, you start to learn about the impact you’re having. You see where you are a star, and where you could be even shinier with a little buff. By doing so you place yourself firmly in control of your destiny.

That will mean that – if you do have a job in an organization that insists on the antiquated process of annual appraisals – you will be ahead of the curve. As your boss prepares to give you all those pieces of feedback that he has gleaned from asking his three mates what they think about you, you’ll be sitting there feeling confident you have a much clearer picture of what is really going on. Instead of waiting in their office for a big surprise about how you have been performing for the last twelve months, you can tell them how you are doing every single week and then ask them for their support in your areas of development. By making this part of your daily practice you will most certainly irritate some people. I really do hope so.

Adapted from Free! Love Your Work, Love Your Life by Chris Baréz-Brown, published by Penguin.
Read Chris's biography, browse more from him in our Clubhouse and find out more via


Author: The Marketing Society
Posted: 25 Aug 2014
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