The movement to replace or at least radically improve the annual performance appraisal process is underway. If your organization is like most, despite a majority of managers and employees being unhappy with your current process, you're still working on gaining the executive support to make any substantial changes.
The process to design and deploy a modern performance management system will take time. But that doesn't mean that you can't make some changes in the near term that will have a positive effect on both the employee's experience of work and their performance.
If you are trapped inside of a traditional performance management process, I'm going to share with you some "hacks" that you can use within the confines of your current process to create a more engaging experience for both the manager and the employee.
In my opinion, subjective numeric ratings are harmful and should be banned from human performance evaluation for a variety of reasons I detail in my book. That said, it is likely that you are stuck with ratings for now. So here are a few hacks to make them less harmful.
Hack #1: Calibrate ratings when you set goals
It is vital to set clear goals and expectations for employees regardless of what performance management process you use. When doing so, the employee should be invited into a conversation about how their goals will relate to ratings at the end of the year.
Clarity between the manager and employee can be achieved with questions like, "If a 3 represents 'meeting expectations,' how would that look in terms of meeting your goals? What about a 5?" This conversation should paint a picture of what the spectrum of ratings means relative to achievement of expectations and goals.
Once this clarity is achieved, ask the employee to write in their own words what was discussed. This added step will ensure that both the employee and manager are truly on the same page. Not only will this document be a great tool for 1:1 conversations throughout the year, but it will also be invaluable at year's end when it's time to determine a rating.
Hack #2: Negotiate the rating with the employee before writing the formal review
One of the failures of the traditional appraisal process is that the employee doesn't see the appraisal until it's already written and submitted. Nearly everyone hates being surprised at work and it's particularly unsettling when it involves a number that will become a part of a permanent record and may affect income and promotion decision. It's best to avoid the surprise.
When there is clarity of goals and expectations in place, the conversation about ratings should be more objective than subjective. To make the process feel better to the employee, involve them during the drafting of their evaluation. Ask for and consider their input. Show them a draft and ask for feedback. If they disagree with the assessment or rating, engage in that conversation before the appraisal is finalized. I know that I've overlooked things as a manager in the past. The employee shouldn't be penalized for that.
The manager also shouldn't wait to until they're writing the evaluation to have a performance conversation with their employee. Holding regular, ongoing 1:1 meetings are opportunities for input - where both the manager and employee can discuss any concerns or share "big wins" throughout the year. So when it comes time for performance evaluations, nothing is a surprise because it has already been discussed, along with feedback and next steps.
After the rating, giving and receiving feedback probably causes the most anxiety in any performance management process. Any action that reduces the perceived pain of feedback will make it both less daunting and more effective.
It's important to remember that feedback is a gift - but it might not feel that way to the employee who isn't prepared to hear it or if the manager's delivery needs some work. Feedback needs to be timely - closely following the event that prompted the feedback - and delivered with the intent to help. Asking the employee if they're ready to receive feedback helps the manager to assess their approach. Managers need to take a step back from the situation and outline the behavior or performance they observed as well as its impact. This is not the time for a manager to share their opinion. Instead, delivering feedback becomes an opportunity for a manager to work with their employee and discuss their next steps. These are a manager's first steps towards creating a culture of feedback for their team.
Hack #3: Give recommendations rather than criticism
Most of the feedback given in the workplace is critical, focusing on what was done wrong in the past. Since the past is not something we can change, this often triggers a defensive reaction which makes it difficult to hear and make something positive from the feedback.
Instead of criticism, offer recommendations and suggestions for how the individual might find greater success in the future. This "feedforward" approach is effective for a number of reasons. While we will generally try to avoid criticism, most of us are at least open to suggestions for how we could be better on our next try. Consider how differently you'd respond when asked if you'd like some "suggestions" instead of some "feedback." This subtle change in how you present feedback can make a difference in how the person receives it.
Hack #4: Invite employees to seek and process their own feedback
Feedback often feels like it's something done to us rather than being a process we participate in. Providing the employee more agency and involvement in the process can change how they feel about the feedback they receive and what they do with it.
One organization I profiled in my book transformed the impact of their performance process when they gave employees the autonomy to seek and process their own feedback. The employee was allowed to choose who to request feedback from and receive the feedback directly from those people. Only after taking the time to process and digest the feedback did they discuss the implications with their manager. Employees have found the approach far more helpful and engaging.
Hacking the Annual Cycle
Performance happens every day that an employee does work. The idea that an annual conversation about performance is somehow adequate management is almost laughable. Conversations about performance must be ongoing throughout the year between the manager and employee.
Hack #5: Use 1:1 meetings as performance review building blocks
I hope it goes without saying that managers should be meeting with employees 1:1 at least monthly. If you aren't doing this, you aren't leading your people. These regularly scheduled conversations are perhaps the most effective tool a manager has for engaging employees to optimal performance.
Part of each 1:1 should be a performance check-in. When expectations are clear, it becomes natural to regularly review progress towards key goals and objectives. When issues arise, they can be addressed right away to keep the employee on track to succeed. When done consistently, these conversations make year-end performance reviews pretty simple because you already have a clear record of performance. Plus, nothing about the review should be a surprise to the employee.
Bonus! A 6th hack to get you going
Remember, work is a relationship. Use 1:1 meetings to cultivate that relationship. Here are a few articles that can help:
- The Importance of 1:1 Meetings and Check-in Sessions
- A Manager's Guide to Successful 1:1 Meetings With Employees
- An Employee's Guide To Successful 1:1 Meetings With Your Manager
- 10 Insightful Questions To Work Into Your 1:1 Meetings
- Beating The 4 Reasons Your People Aren't Holding 1:1 Meetings
The Bottom Line
Regardless of how broken or antiquated the performance management process is at your organization, you don't have to wait for a new process or technology to create a more engaging performance management experience for your employees and managers. By using hacks like those I've shared here, you can work within or around any current system to create a better and more engaging process for your employees.
Want to learn more? Join me for the continuing education series, "Unlocking High Performance"
Chances are you're just coming off some form of an annual review cycle, making now the perfect time to re-examine your performance management strategy.
In this master class series about "Unlocking High Performance," I'm working in partnership with Saba to deliver live webcasts, hands-on workshops and tons of digital content to help you reach the next step in your talent journey. We've already done two great webinars, both of which are available on-demand. There are also complimentary in-person workshops coming up in
Unlocking high performance is a journey and we're here to help you take the next step. Visit this page to get all the details, start exploring the resources available, and register for a workshop near you!