Monday, December 02, 2013

Annual Appraisals and Feedback

He came out of the room fully drained from the marathon discussion with his team member; the appraisal had lasted more than five hours. His team was watching from the sides of their eyes trying to guess who won. It was not the first time an appraisal had taken that long with the appraisee. The demeanour suggested that the CIO had not been able to prevail and had to concede some ground. The victor emerged later beaming that he had the ratings he wanted in his appraisal.

For many this time of the year – December – brings appraisal time when the annual game begins with everyone attempting to be on their best behaviours; keep smiling, look good, don’t upset the boss, don’t make mistakes, say all the nice things, tolerate quirkiness that makes all bosses a pain. This time of the year (some companies have different year ends and some countries like India have financial year end in March) brings butterflies even to the strongest stomach, irrespective of how well or badly they may have done.

Every company has an annual appraisal cycle, some do it more often with a mid-term check, and few have also adopted a quarterly discussion. Appraisals review performance against set objectives in most cases and others review consistent productivity and quality (e.g. production workers or financial back office or for that matter within IT the helpdesk and system/database administrators). Mistakes are frowned upon and may bring the score down. It matters since in almost all cases the increments are linked to appraisals.

On top of this exercise that forces managers to have a courageous conversation with their team, many companies use bell curve to force fit performance within a function, location or the entire company. The resultant pushbacks, disagreements, and angst have been accepted with a hypothesis that bell curves take away sub-optimal talent raising the performance bar. Statistically bell curves have had no impact on corporate performance, profitability or relative growth in the industry. Recent announcement by one of the tech bellwether companies discarding the bell curve had many celebrating.

The CIO who had aspirations to grow into a HR role was discussing how to manage the employee in question who always managed to stay one up on him. Listening to the story, I found myself at the edge of the seat with multiple questions and answers. I could visualise the situations and his helplessness which arose due to his inherent nature and behaviour. He was a good person and had done well over his 25 odd years of work life. He always drove decisions by consensus and avoided conflict or confrontation.

Managing recalcitrant behaviour does require a firm demeanour; his ability to remain on top of the situation failed him many times when he was required to be assertive, take a stand or give bad news. People took advantage of this and he a backseat most of the time. The appraisal discussion was no different with the employee using all instances to his advantage where he had raised the issue with the CIO and not received feedback. The CIO was reluctant and did not know how to give candid feedback.

Annual appraisals are not the only opportunity to give feedback to a person in the team. It should be continuous tactically and periodically planned discussion to review progress, consider challenges, explore opportunities for improvement, and overall development. Restricting this to once in a year takes away the context and relevance or focuses only on the recent past. Performance review and appraisal is an art and a science which is easily mastered, giving factual especially negative feedback is an act of courage for many.

Many years later I happened to meet the “difficult” employee; I found him knowledgeable with an inherent need to talk and discuss throwing challenges to the other side as if to test the other persons’ expertise. I enjoyed the conversation as he gradually backed off and focused on the discussion at hand. I could see why he would be a difficult person to manage if not held with a firm reign. He received the suggestions and worked upon them. Today he has matured and manages a team having himself survived multiple managers in the same company.

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