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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Book Review: Stress Free Performance Appraisals

Book: Stress Free Performance Appraials: Turn Your Most Painful Management Duty into a Powerful Motivational Tool
Authors: Sharon Armstrong and Madelyn Appelbaum

One out of 8 people would rather go to the dentist than conduct a performance review, according to this lovely book. Given the moans and groans around performance appraisals, I have a hard time believing it's not 7 out of 8 people preferring the dentist.

Although dentistry and performance appraisals are strangely connected. A trip to the dentist can be a nightmare, resulting in drugs, pain, spitting, blood and a huge bill at the end. Or it can be a quick cleaning and discussion with the dentist about his expensive hobbies that you are funding. (Wait, maybe that's just my dentist.) I think to be a better analogy, I better say a quick cleaning and a discussion with the dentist about what you can do to maintain that beautiful smile.

According to Armstrong and Appelbaum, your performance appraisal can go either way--it's all up to the maintenance work done during the year.

The premise is that if managers set up measurable objectives to begin with and then communicate during the year, year end performance appraisals are a snap. By instructing readers to make specific statements regarding these goals they give clear help to the appraisal writer.

Armstrong and Applebaum give numerous examples and follow three employees (an excellent performer, a temporarily struggling employee, and a poor performer) through their appraisals, discussing how to approach each one.

They even discuss how to write and follow a Performance Improvement Plan (which is quite helpful).

After reading it, I do have a question of how best to apply their methods in a company with a forced ratings distribution. (I am assuming here that the average reader is not the person with the power to change that system.) I operate in a forced distribution company and let me tell you, I'm very hesitant to give positive feedback on goals throughout the year because I have very little control over what my employee's final rating will be. (If my boss decides that another group deserves extra high performers my group suffers, regardless of how my people have performed against their objectives, but that's a rant for another day.) If I've documented and discussed performance as exceeding goals all year long and then have to rate an employee average I've just lost all credibility as a manager.

Maybe I can get Sharon Armstrong and Madelyn Appelbaum to come talk to my management...

If you don't have time to read the whole thing, I recommend reading Chapter 7: When Appraisals Go Off Track. They list problems and give sample dialogs to help you navigate any appraisal situation.

Overall, it's helpful for managers who are learning to be better and HR who should know better to begin with. I can't say it lives up to its claim of complete stress free appraisals (it's always stressful to tell someone they aren't doing well), but if we followed their advice we'd have a lot less spitting, drugs, and blood at year end.


Gabriel C. said...

I worked in a company who also had forced rating distribution, and because of the lack of correlation between my performance and the final rating, I basically give up, and did just enough to be average (is not what they looking for? mostly "average" performers?)
I don't believe too much in individual performance appraisals. I understand it if the work doesn't depends on others (like salesmans, but if they perform better, they have more rewards in commissions), but if you work in a team, splitting it and grade the performance of each individual is the fastest way to "teamicide".
I work in software development, so maybe I'm little biased on the "team" side: a gelled and motivated team can be highly productive, even more than the "high performers".
I understand that companies need some objective (???) data to base some decisions, but I feel that they do more harm than good.
Luckly I'm not the only one: the total quality Guru Dr. Deming said of Performance Appraisals: "Stop doing them and things will get better."

David said...

"if the work doesn't depends on others (like salesmans, but if they perform better, they have more rewards in commissions)"...sales work is actually dependent on others to a much greater extent that often recognized. In a B-to-B software business, for example, the sales rep is typically dependent on:

1)Headquarters sales and legal, for timely and high-quality response to nonstandard RFPs
2)Product management and software development, to keep the product saleable
3)Other sales reps, for the handling of global accounts
4)Finance, customer service, etc, for not pissing off the customers too much

Sales work *is* quantitatively measurable in a way many other jobs are not, but it is not free of dependencies.

Gabriel C. said...

You're right, I was thinking on the stereotypical salesman who work alone on his "territory". I got it wrong anyway, but you reinforce my point: how you can rate individual performances when there's a big interdependency and without killing the team spirit?

David said...

Gabriel...yeah, but do you *really* want to rate the whole team together? I think like it would be pretty awful to be an excellent member of a team that gets the job done *despite* a weak member, and then having him get the same rewards as everyone else--not to mention having him tie up a position that could go to a competent individual.

It sounds like the forced rankings distribution is doing serious harm, both in your case and in the case of Evil HR Lady. I question to need to micromanage performance appraisals in this way. There is obviously a need to prevent "grade inflation," but normally this is taken care of by:

1)Having competent managers who do honest appraisals
2)Having one-over-one managerial reviews of all appraisals
3)Tieing appraisals and salary increases together, so that the average increase targets act as a brake on excessively-high ratings.

For a manager to be afraid to give honest feedback to an employee throughout the year because of the peculiarities of the appraisal system is a terrible thing; it defeats a major purpose of having an appraisal system in the first place.

Gabriel C. said...

Probably we should start trying to see why have ratings :-)
(specially for technical people whose main motivation is the work itself)
Anyway, if you have a "weak" member, and the team can't help him improve... why keep it in the team?
The more I think about it, more sense I see in team ratings... maybe I should do a blog entry about it.