Balancing act: Annual performance review doesn't have to be scary
It's a yearly requirement at most companies, and it's often dreaded by both managers and their employees.
If mishandled, it can cause morale and performance problems, or make those problems worse. Used correctly, it can boost a worker's confidence and could lead to improved productivity.
It's the annual performance appraisal, and if you've ever been the appraiser or the appraisee, you can relate to this conundrum.
I've been on both sides of the desk at several different companies, and my personal experience has been a mixed bag. I can remember some appraisals that were clearly completed by my manager at the last minute and contained mostly one-word comments like "good" or "excellent." While I appreciated the positive feedback — if you can call it that — I didn't feel like I had been given much guidance on how I could improve.
On the other hand, I've had managers who provided much more thorough appraisals. I could tell they had paid attention to my work during the previous year, because they used specific examples to make points about both successes and shortcomings.
Obviously, I preferred the latter review style to the former. However, I'm guessing all the managers involved thought they had done an excellent job of appraising my performance, whether I agreed or not.
Such differing points of view are not unusual, according to a recent survey of more than 1,400 chief financial officers and 422 working adults employed in office environments.
The survey was conducted for Accountemps, a specialized staffing service for temporary accounting, finance and bookkeeping professionals. It found that 26 percent of CFOs said annual or semiannual performance reviews were "very effective" in helping employees improve their work. Another 68 percent of CFOs said appraisals were "somewhat effective" in that regard.
In other words, an overwhelming 94 percent of executives said they believed in the positive power of performance appraisals.
Unfortunately, the employees who were interviewed didn't feel the same way. When asked how effective appraisals were in helping them improve their own performance, only 25 percent said "very effective," and 37 percent said "somewhat effective." Meanwhile, 16 percent said reviews were "somewhat ineffective," and 15 percent said they were "very ineffective."
"The success or failure of an appraisal depends on how clearly both performance expectations and feedback are communicated to employees," said Max Messmer, chairman of Accountemps, in a press release about the survey. "Managers and their staff should be in agreement at the outset on what criteria will be used to evaluate effectiveness in a given role."
He also said reviews shouldn't be delivered just once a year. "Nothing discussed in a formal evaluation should come as a surprise to the employee," Messmer said. "The best managers regularly give their teams performance feedback throughout the year."
I completely agree with that. About a year before I left my previous job, managers there instituted weekly one-on-one meetings with employees. At first, my one-on-one meetings with my manager were uncomfortable, as I didn't understand their purpose. They seemed like a waste of time when both of us were extremely busy.
However, over time, I found that the one-on-one could be useful. It gave me a set time to talk to my boss every week, seek feedback on my work and ask questions about assignments. It also gave me an opportunity to get to know him better on a personal level, which is helpful when you're working closely with someone.
I've tried to follow that example in my new job, holding one-on-one meetings with each of my team members every other week. Sometimes these quick meetings are tightly focused on a particular task or duty, while at other times they may include chatting about more personal matters. I try to be flexible, allowing the meetings to be rescheduled or canceled altogether if an employee is particularly busy.
I've found that one huge benefit of these meetings is that annual appraisals are not surprising for the people on my team. Or at least, they shouldn't be. If I've been doing my job, we've already discussed all the potential issues that would be raised in an appraisal, and the yearly review simply formalizes what they already know.
Speaking specifically of such reviews, Accountemps offered some other tips to make them more effective. For example, managers should focus on specifics; make sure to prepare for the appraisal; engage employees in a two-way conversation; ask team members to conduct a self-assessment prior to the formal review meeting; reinforce positive performance in addition to pointing out problems; and seek feedback from colleagues of the person who is being appraised.
I've used several of these ideas when conducting appraisals, and I've found them to be quite effective.
However, I know not all performance reviews work as they should, even if both the manager and employee are trying to ensure a good experience. Do you have an annual review horror story, either as an employee or a manager? Or, alternatively, what's the best experience you've had in a yearly appraisal? What tips would you give to people on either side of the desk to help such reviews go better?
Please send me your ideas, and I'll share some of them in a future column.