How to position performance appraisals to create motivating outcomes

How to position performance appraisals: folder

Learning how to position performance appraisals effectively is an important part of being a people manager. This is because conducting performance appraisals can be one of the most challenging tasks that people managers have to do.

Performance appraisals (also known as performance evaluations) are sometimes fraught with tension, largely because of the need to deliver mixed feedback – what went well and what could have gone better.

In my experience, some people are fine with recognising that there are improvements they could make. But others struggle to focus on anything other than what they perceive as criticism and often feel as if they have been treated unfairly

Of course, they may have a point if the feedback is not evidence-based or is delivered insensitively. So managers and leaders must ensure these aspects are take care of.

But in order to ensure performance appraisals have some forward-looking and motivational value, we do need to try to manage the way that feedback lands with our people. These conversations need to be coaching conversations.

How to position performance appraisals

With this is in mind, here is something I wrote to my team recently with the aim of trying to contextualise the appraisal process. You might find it useful to do something similar

You may have heard of the 10,000 hours rule, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. The idea is that to attain true mastery of a skill or a subject takes 10,000 hours of practice. At least that is how the idea is generally presented.

In fact, the research from Anders Ericsson upon which this idea is based, found that what is needed is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is practice that does not just involve doing the same thing repeatedly, such as repeatedly hitting serves in tennis. It means working with a coach or mentor who gives you feedback on what you are doing and then practising your craft with adjustments based on the feedback you’ve received.

The attainment of mastery comes from the cycle of practice, feedback, learning and adjusted practice.

All of which brings me to our performance appraisals. Feedback is at the heart of the conversations we will all be having. A lot of that feedback will be about what we have done well, but some will be about what seemed not to have gone so well and what we could improve.

The problem with feedback is that because of our inbuilt negativity bias, we tend to focus almost exclusively on what we perceive as negative and ignore all the positives.

One of the most accessible thinkers on negativity bias is Rick Hanson. In this article, which provides a good explanation of negativity bias and what we can do about it, he says: “In effect, … the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. That’s why researchers have found that animals, including humans, generally learn faster from pain (alas) than pleasure.”

I’d like us to get better as a team at providing each other with ongoing feedback (not by causing any pain, I hasten to add), so that we can improve our performance over time. And we can use our performance appraisals as the starting point.

Based on what I’ve written above, I think it would be helpful if we could bear a few things in mind as we go through the appraisal process:

  • When we get feedback on our performance, let’s make a genuine effort to hear the positives, reflect upon them and take satisfaction from them;
  • Let’s keep our perception of those elements of feedback that point to areas of improvement in proportion, especially when compared with the positive feedback we receive;
  • Let’s remember the concept of negativity bias and be deliberate in trying to hear the whole message for what it is;
  • Let’s recognise that feedback is the raw material we need to drive our improvement over time. Development points are just that – points about what we can do differently with deliberate practice to aid our improvement. They are not criticisms of us as individuals.

Why learning how to position performance appraisals in this way is worthwhile

Hopefully, what is written above is self-explanatory. But the key reasons for learning how to position performance appraisals in this way are these:

  • The intent behind this approach is to open up your team to all kinds of feedback – positive, negative, developmental.
  • Introducing the concept of mastery, based on the proven approach of deliberate practice, creates an indisputable basis for what you are trying to achieve. This is not just a cranky idea that you had – it is evidence based.
  • Likewise, providing the reference for why we all tend to focus much more on the negative messages, opens up the possibility that people will intentionally resist this instinct.
  • Positioning the performance appraisal as part of the process of continuous improvement, rather than an end itself can take some of the heat out of the conversation.
  • Using inclusive language creates the sense of the performance appraisal as being a collective, collaborative process, rather than something that is ‘done’ to the employee.
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