For quite a few years, now, HR has been collectively banging its drum about staff appraisals. The impetus came from two directions:
On the one hand, managers wanted to dispense with poor performers, but had no adequate trail of evidence to demonstrate the issues of which they were complaining.
On the other hand, employees were complaining that they didn’t get feedback on their work or have a clear understanding of how they were performing.
The first step was the adoption of annual performance appraisal: a time-consuming ritual borrowed (like so much in management) from the Armed Forces who had long used such systems to guide the promotions boards of service personnel. These acquired various formats, with different levels of employee input and different approaches to grading from the “thirds” system to a system based on percentages, to a straightforward ranking, to the (rather cowardly) “fails to meet/meets/exceeds expectations” trope.
Over the last ten years we’ve seen a further shift to abandon the annual ritual for a less structured and time-consuming but more regular system of “one to one” meetings, but the overall objective was still the same. Managers have been consistently unwilling or unable to give honest, constructive feedback to their employees without being given permission by the company (and even then, a considerable amount of hand-holding was required).
But things are clearly on the move once again. At the HRD Summit, Jacques Quinio of Right Management spoke persuasively about the issue and, just this morning in my new copy of People Management, David Clutterbuck makes the same argument from a slightly different direction. It all gels remarkably closely with the general debate in HR about what the new relationship between employers and employees needs to look like.
From the start, appraisal has been something “done unto” the staff. Even if you get to write your own objectives or have a 360˚ appraisal, you’re still having the whole thing done to you. And for a long time this has been necessary simply because it was so hard to get managers to actually engage with the process of appraisal and feedback without the top-down approach. But the down-side – OK, one of the downsides, not including the dread, boredom, embarrassment, doubt and anger that came along with it – was that whilst doing it to employees, there was very little opportunity for it to be done by or done for those employees.
But we’re at a point of change. And just as we’re changing the legal framework within which work happens, so we need to think about how we adapt the framework of relationships and how we conduct our performance appraisals is going to be a vital part of that.
Jacques’s “big idea” – and it needs to be acknowledged that it’s not exclusively his, but he deserves a good portion of credit for legitimizing it in the minds of international business leaders – is employee-led appraisal: at the most basic level, this means making it the employee’s choice when appraisal happens. In this picture, the manager becomes a provider and the employee a customer of the manager’s service. Now the pressure isn’t coming from on high for the manager to deliver a bare minimum, but from below, bringing pressure to deliver not what employees want to hear, but what they need to hear in a way that helps them to hear it. The principles of customer service apply perfectly: the customer isn’t always right and the way to secure their loyalty and repeat custom isn’t to pretend that they are, but to deal with them in a way that understands and meets their needs. And so it is with employee-led performance appraisal.
I had the chance to challenge Jacques on how his ideas scale for SMEs that can’t afford the professional services of cutting-edge management consultants. He agreed: for SMEs in particular, at the moment, the odds are poor. Cashflow is tight and getting tighter. Recruitment is difficult when wages are under pressure. The kind of Big Data available to big organizations just isn’t there for the CEOs of smaller enterprises. But, says Jacques, you still need data, and the best place to get it is from your own people. An employee-led appraisal process is only one rung in that ladder, but it’s an important one. By empowering your employees to decide when to discuss their needs and objectives with managers, you open them up to a more constructive conversation that’s not just limited to the tick-boxes on the appraisal sheet. They have other things to say – more intelligence to share. And it’s this insight into what makes your best people tick (and, incidentally, it’s the good ones who are proactive about asking for appraisal meetings; the bad ones hide and, by hiding, put the spotlight onto themselves) that can make the competitive difference in a challenging market.
Now Jacques was also an enthusiast for other forms of data gathering through staff appraisal, including a personality assessment test called the Hogan Development Survey. I have to confess to a healthy dose of skepticism about these. I’ve trained in and used psychometric surveys before and was once a fan, but I’ve increasingly had my doubts about their actual value to business and reputable neuroscientists, such as Dean Burnett, share my skepticism. Now, in Jacques’s defence, he agreed with me entirely that their use as a selection tool is largely de-bunked, but he stands convicted of their utility as a development tool for existing staff.
This, however, is in the context of the smart organization’s use of swathes of intelligence data, from social media to voice analysis, as tools to guide management and leadership decisions. So at that point I had to accept that Jacques’s experience was operating above the day-to-day needs of this blog’s audience, and we agreed to disagree.
Where we definitely agreed, though, was on the importance to business leaders of knowing who to invest in and how to invest in them. And as far as this goes, the argument for employee-led appraisal as the next evolutionary step for HR managers is pretty solid.