I recently conducted a study alongside Dr. Anna Tavis and Michael Bungay Stanier. We set out to learn what changes companies had made to their performance management systems in the last few years. One of the most common answers was that organizations had adopted the use of mid-year appraisals.
This answer fits in with the major finding from our study that the main thing companies wanted to accomplish was a shift from the unloved annual appraisal to some type of ongoing performance management process. The data showed the two most common failings of performance management were managers not engaging in performance conversations frequently enough, and not doing it well enough.
It's easy to get on board with the notion of ongoing performance management. However, the most useful revelation in the study was that HR often mixed up several ideas about the true definition of ongoing performance management. For many HR pros, "ongoing performance management" tends to mean three overlapping but distinct activities:
- A formal mid-year appraisal
- One or more formal mid-year check-in/coaching sessions
- Many (e.g. weekly) coaching conversations
Lack of clarity about these three distinct activities is one of the greatest barriers to successfully evolving your performance management system.
Why we mix-up mid-year appraisal and mid-year coaching check-ins
It's easy to understand why companies aren't clear about the difference between mid-year appraisals and mid-year coaching check-ins. They sound and look much the same. In both cases, it's a conversation between a manager and employee about performance.
However, in a coaching check-in, you might tell an underperforming employee who is striving to get better that they are on the right path and to work on certain skills. In a mid-year appraisal, you'd tell the same employee that they are currently rated as "not meeting expectations."
Don't these two activities go together? Can't we start with the appraisal and then go on to the coaching part? The answer is not really; it doesn't work well to mix these activities because as soon as you give a rating, people tend to shut down and stop listening to well-meaning coaching advice.
Should we do the mid-year appraisal at all? Yes, you probably want to. If you desire to improve the quality of appraisals and make the process less painful, then there is a lot to be said for not leaving it all until the end of the year.
The conclusion is that you probably want both mid-year appraisals and mid-year coaching check-ins. You also want to add to the mix informal, ongoing, week-to-week coaching conversations.
How to get the mid-year appraisal right
The starting point of an effective mid-year appraisal is that managers and employees need to know its purpose. For example, the objectives might be:
- To give a realistic assessment of how the employee rates now so that they will not be surprised at the end of the year.
- To ensure that accomplishments in the first half of the year are duly noted and assessed lest they be forgotten by year end.
- If formal goals need to be reset then this is the occasion to do it.
It should be clearly understood that this is not a coaching or development conversation; we save that for another time.
How to get mid-year coaching check-ins right
If you know employees are regularly receiving ongoing week-to-week coaching then you might not need to require more formal mid-year check-ins. But most companies are not confident this is happening. Our study showed that on average, 30 percent of managers were good at coaching, 32 percent were poor and the rest were somewhere in the middle. Companies use formal mid-year coaching sessions to signal that coaching is essential and ensure that at least some coaching is happening.
As with mid-year appraisals, clarity of purpose helps. It gets a bit complicated because that purpose could be a wide variety of things: helping an employee solve some problems, encouraging them to develop new skills, motivating them or urging them to think about their career. A company might decide to carefully orchestrate the meeting(s). For example, WeWork requires managers to hold seven performance meetings dedicated to a different topic over the course of the year. Alternatively, the company may give managers a menu of options and let them decide what is most needed for each employee.
How to get ongoing coaching right
Providing high-quality ongoing coaching deserves a long article of its own. However, I can share a few key findings from our study. The overarching finding is that you won't get effective ongoing coaching without making an investment. You can't simply decree that it is now part of the process. Investments need to be made in training, support and technology.
Also, ongoing coaching needs to be differentiated from the more formal mid-year check-ins. While some companies do insist on regular 30-minute sit-down coaching meetings, more commonly we expect coaching to occur in short, in-the-hallway conversations that help improve performance. Managers need to know they are not expected to become professional coaches, but they should be trained on how to lead quick, effective, on-the-fly coaching conversations.
The big takeaway
Performance management can be confusing because it involves many different elements. Ongoing performance management is even more confusing because it includes everything from a formal sit-down mid-year appraisal to a five-minute hallway conversation to help steer an employee back on track. Although the elements of ongoing performance overlap, we will be more successful if we draw clear distinctions between mid-year appraisals, mid-year coaching check-ins and day-to-day around-the-watercooler coaching conversations.
In all cases, clarity is the starting point, and investment is required to deliver the desired results.