“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.“
Gertrude Stein (3 February 1874 – 27 July 1946). Stein was an American expatriate writer, poet, feminist, and playwright.
I had worked hard, and expected a good review for my performance appraisal toward the end of my first work year. Indeed, there was plenty of praise, but standing out like a sore thumb was one negative quote about me, attributed to an anonymous source. As justification for its inclusion, my manager said that his Director required him to write at least one negative comment, and this was the one he was able to find.
Although the experience bothered me at the time, largely because the comment was unexpected, vague and not actionable, I could look back on it later as the first entry in my personal “Do’s and Don’ts” to writing appraisals. My turn for writing appraisals began two years later, and for the next 20+ years as a leader, I would be writing appraisals for engineers, technicians and project managers. I’ll share what I learned from personal experience and from other leaders about writing effective appraisals.
No appraisal-writing training was ever provided to me, so I was left to a ‘Do-It-Yourself’ route of getting advice from my boss and peers (ones I saw as good people managers), building a list of best practices, and using a good dose of common sense.
Beginning with “Common Sense”, the fundamental aspect of writing a performance appraisal is to think about its intent. At heart, every manager wants to strengthen the organization by improving the performance of individuals and teams. An appraisal must of course contain accurate, useful and actionable content. But to be truly effective, the recipient must understand it, respect it and be motivated to take the steps to improve. So, think about how the appraisal will be received. By doing so, you’ll not only be more likely to make the impact you desire, you’ll be better prepared to have an effective discussion with your team member.
Recognize that it is natural for employees to feel anxious over an appraisal becoming their “permanent record”, so take extra care in being accurate and fair, especially when it comes to negative feedback. A major “don’t” is the inclusion of negative ‘surprises’. Any performance issues should be addressed during the course of the year as they occur. Such issues should be appropriately included in the appraisal, but the employee should know in advance and have had the opportunity to make changes in their performance.
Legacies & Futures: Examine your employees’ previous appraisals in advance. Understand their past performance growth, strengths and weaknesses. Are you ‘in line’ with their past and witnessing improvements? If not, act early to avoid the ‘surprises’ pitfall. Be clear and consistent in setting expectations with your staff as to what you expect out of them. If team members do self-appraisals, ask for examples to underpin their assessments and ask them to share their view of where they can improve.
Motivational Appraisal: Provide praise where earned. Soften, but don’t back away from, performance issues. There are many ways to phrase things, and you can be just as accurate and effective in finding words that don’t upset the employee more than necessary (see DeAnna Myer’s blog on giving difficult but meaningful feedback). Additionally, most people are motivated if their management is genuinely interested in their career growth. Ensure your employees are accountable for their own career growth, but be a coach and advocate. Offer assistance, such as networking them with associates outside the team who may offer useful information or even direction.
Meaningful Content: Descriptive words are more impactful when accompanied with concrete examples of accomplishments and behaviors. Examples establish credibility with the employee that you’ve been paying attention to their work. Accordingly, keep track throughout the year of staff accomplishments (see Karen Bonsignore’s blog for a downloadable matrix). Additionally, have employees track what they view as their relevant accomplishments for inclusion in self-appraisals. Make your comments actionable in areas where performance improvement is sought, and remember, no surprises! A good leader is already working in ‘real time’ to help staff develop.
Goal Setting (with your staff): Ensure that goals are realistic, challenging, and aligned with the overall goals of your team and the organization. If an employee’s goals are too easily attainable, you may find yourself in an uncomfortable discussion at review time being asked by your employee why they were not awarded the highest rating. To further strengthen the overall organization and develop new leaders, recognize that non-managers are routinely in positions of leadership. So have those employees set a “people development” goal such as mentoring people they lead (see Renata Figueiredo ‘s blog on improving the corporate appraisal approach).