I've always been a big believer in giving positive feedback and encouraging enthusiasm. Performance appraisals can be a wonderful motivational opportunity. The challenge is to provide adequate criticism while continuing to nurture and improve staff.
I learned a little bit more about appraisals after receiving an evaluation of a presentation I gave recently. The evaluation results were generally good. I was feeling satisfied with the statistics and most of the written comments. There were a couple of some solid criticisms about things that I knew did not go right. But there was also one scathing comment about something I did not expect.
Clearly one person disagreed with one of my points in a big way. There were over 100 folks in the room and I only really upset one person. Should I ignore it and focus on the positive? Statistically speaking I should not worry about it. However, the individual took and effort time to write their comment - obviously the issue was important to them and they felt obliged to make their point to me.
I kept thinking about the comment, so I pulled out my speaking notes and reviewed the point again. I may have been right, but I also may have stated my case too strongly. If I give the same talk in the future, I am going to re-write that particular point. Although the powerfully worded feedback was painful, it was probably the most useful feedback I received.
From a management perspective, this experience provides an interesting lesson about performance feedback. The conference comment certainly surprised me and it made me think more deeply about feedback in general. When we do staff performance appraisals are doing anyone any favors by watering down criticisms? Are staff really going to improve if you are not specific about issues? On the other hand, such feedback can be highly de-motivating. How do you resolve this inherent conflict?
The answer lies in the surprise. For me, the negative presentation feedback came as a surprise. I had no early warning that it was coming. The same is true of staff performance appraisals. If a formal appraisal is written once a year, none of the issues should be a surprise. Managers must provide feedback to staff at every opportunity and cannot wait for the once-a-year appraisal meeting.
As managers we are obliged to inform, coach, and guide staff members throughout the year about any problems. By the time the performance appraisal meeting arrives, the issue should be a familiar one with a history of suggestions and (hopefully) improvements. Instead of crushing someone's enthusiasm in a surprise one-time event, you need to gently guide it in the right direction over time.
Ultimately, successful performance appraisals are not just about the employee's skills. Successful appraisals reflect the manager's skills as a mentor.