One of the first questions I ask when I start working with a new client is, “Are you using performance appraisals well, and how does performance management work in your organization?” I guess that’s more than one question, isn’t it?
Once in a while I hear that performance management is working well, that appraisals are written and discussed, and that there’s a benefit to the dialogue. As I said, that’s once in a while. Unfortunately, too often there are cobwebs in the system.
A few years ago, when I was working for a community organization, I asked a similar question. I got answers like, “Oh yeah, we do them. I have my form.” When I asked what was learned from the performance review discussion, I received dark stares. As I probed deeper, Shannon, a brave employee, told me, “The CEO takes a pen and just draws a line down the page and marks every standard as excellent.” I thought, now that’s scary!
I found what Shannon told me incredible, so I asked Thomas, the CEO, about it. He confirmed that it was true. “What,” I asked, “was the purpose of having performance appraisals?” Thomas told me that the board of directors asks about performance appraisals, so he does them. He said it’s simple – he uses the form that he inherited and just fills it out and puts it in each employee’s file. He didn’t even plan on discussing them. Oh my! There are some serious skeletons hanging out in that organization’s closet!
As I started talking more with Thomas, I found out he “just didn’t have time” to write appraisals. Hearing that made me batty. Still, he told me all about his direct reports. What each employee was doing well, and what each had trouble managing. He talked for a long time and in great detail. I returned to my office and I wrote drafts for him. Neither one of us realized it, but we were starting a process that lasted over a decade. Every year, I would ask Thomas questions, and he would answer. In the end he would have a draft performance appraisal for each of his direct reports. Someone told me that I was “ghost writing” but I wasn’t really; I was just capturing and organizing his thoughts.
As a result of our work together, Thomas’ senior leadership team has had performance appraisals for the past 11 years. They discuss their goals, accomplishments, and challenges with Thomas at least once a year. The courageous conversations are happening. And, as you would guess, once Thomas started, it spread throughout the organization. The culture of the organization shifted.
If the words, “performance management” are just words, it’s time to take action.
Do you find the performance appraisal process in your organization to be helpful? Do you learn from it?
Performance appraisals can be either a trick or a treat. I hope yours will be both sweet and helpful.
Feedback is a gift. Albeit sometimes an unwanted one — like that ugly red sweater you got at Christmas. But here’s the thing…as with any ill-suited present, its best if you accept graciously, even if you are never going to use it.