Workplace appraisals: an appraisal

No marks for the dreaded self-assessment process.

Appraisals - there must be very few whose heart hasn’t plummeted at the sound of the word.

Every six months or so, if you work for an efficient twenty-first-century company, and rather less frequently if you work for a shower of dossers, your boss asks you those dreaded open-ended questions - the who, what, why, when and which that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no.

During this process you often find that your brain has become temporarily detached from your tongue. You hear yourself burbling on in an involuntary fashion, describing (in the language of Knowledge, Skills and Attitude) how inept you’ve been, how your performance needs to improve, and concluding, with your boss nodding in agreement, that you’re not worth the flimsy slip of paper your miserable non-performance-related salary is printed on.

That is what is known in management training circles as self-assessment. The effect wears off about three seconds after you’ve slunk out of the boss’s office. You spend the rest of the day in stunned and isolated wonderment at how you sailed into the boss’s office feeling like a combination of Charles Handy and Madonna but were induced to come across like Norman Wisdom. Never mind. Cheer up. There are still those appraisal notes to write….

Jennifer, a senior journalist at a well-known women’s magazine, relates a particularly gruesome appraisal-related story: ‘The editor was sent off for some training and came back to wreak havoc among her staff. A year later, after every single appraisal had resulted in nervous breakdowns and threatened resignations, we were branded a dysfunctional office and hauled off to a hotel in Dartmoor to spend an appalling weekend unburdening our deepest secrets on one another. There were no survivors; everybody left.’

So much for mutual trust, loyalty and teamwork. In the past, a ‘chat’ with the boss during which you were told to smarten your ideas up would probably have wound up with you being consoled by your workmates down the pub. But the old workplace culture of being close friends with your colleagues is being replaced by new work-as-life customs and habits. (You may even have noticed that your colleagues spend more time emailing their friends in other offices than they do communicating face-to-face with the people in your office.) These days, after a bad appraisal, you’re more likely to go into a huff and call the nearest firm of headhunters, because you have realised you don’t really know or trust your work colleagues well enough to sob on their shoulders.

According to Angela Baron of the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, who surveyed 2756 people for the 1998 report ‘Performance Management: The New Realities’, 83 percent of British companies appraise their staff annually (in America it is 90 percent). For 45 percent this takes the form of a self-assessment-style development review; 20 percent do ‘180 degree appraisal’, where you appraise those on the same level and below you, and 11 percent do ‘360 degree appraisal’, where you have the satisfaction of appraising those on the higher as well as the lower rungs of the career ladder (1).

Baron points out how the nature of appraisals has changed significantly since they were introduced in Britain in the early 1970s: ‘Forty-three percent of British companies were using some form of performance-related pay, but because salaries depended on appraisals it led to a much less honest and open discussion. What we found is that the big picture has changed from pay-related appraisals to more emphasis on development, and to cutting down on form-filling and paperwork.’ And since the mid-1990s the old-fashioned workplace appraisal has been widely replaced by the performance development review, with its emphasis on those two bywords - skills and communication. Feedback is king, particularly the continuous sort.

But there is a dearth of proper research into whether appraisals are effective as a management method. As Baron says, ‘The CIPD tried to look at the effectiveness of the processes currently in use but failed, firstly because companies don’t always collect data on whether appraisal works or not, and secondly because, where they do, they use widely varying methods of analysing the data they do have’.

So it seems that Corporate UK has its fingers crossed on the subject of assessing its staff. You can hardly blame bosses for being confused - groping for new ways to manage relations with their workforce in the void left by the late-1980s collapse of trade unionism, companies breathed a sigh of relief when training consultancies sprang up overnight. They offered out-of-house leadership and performance training for all, at reasonable rates, and were gratefully signed up.

But many of these training companies come steeped in the American West-Coast New-Age ways of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), a grisly cod-science cocktail of linguistics, psychology and behaviour study marketed to companies worldwide as the panacea for everything from poor communications to lousy sales figures. Of course, there’s nothing to stop you picking up a few NLP tips from, say, the website of Robert B Dilts (2), and quoting them right back at your appraiser - so is the appraisal system really a shining example of confident leadership?

There is nothing wrong with a good management tool, and there could yet be hope for a decently structured system of staff training and development. But there is something amiss with this phoney language of coaching, inspiration, mutual respect, understanding….It sometimes seems as if the appraisal has been invented as a surrogate for something that no longer exists.

Ann Oliver is the editor of @demon, the magazine for Demon, the internet service provider.

(1) ‘Performance Management: The New Realities’ is written by Angela Baron and Michael Armstrong

(2) See the Robert B Dilts website

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