Appraisals: 10 tips for making the most of yours

If you are reading this in December or January, chances are you are in the middle of the dreaded cycle of annual performance appraisals.

I say dreaded because that is what the majority of people feel about this process. I’ve also heard the words “fear”, “apathy”, “loathing” and “chore”. Rarely do I come across someone who relishes the process. Ultimately, the biggest issue we all have with them is the feeling of being judged. As human beings, we don’t like that, not one bit!

Like or loath them, one thing we can say about appraisals is that they are here to stay for the foreseeable future. My research into the literature on performance management practices in 2008 revealed there are no viable alternatives on the horizon.

Given their prevalence, what can individuals do to get the most out of their appraisals?

Here’s my top 10 things to think about and do:

1. Take ownership

This is the most important on the list. This is your appraisal, your development, your performance rating, and ultimately your rewards and career progression. Take the process seriously and allow enough time and energy for it.

2. Understand the process, know the detail

Most processes are overly complicated. Don’t let this put you off reading and getting to understand all of the related materials and expectations placed upon you. Of course, you should have done this at the beginning of the review period so that you knew what you were aiming for. Either way, look at them now and make sure you know how you have performed against the benchmarks. In most organisations these days, that means both the “what” and the “how”.

3. Be realistic

In any group above about 50 people, there will be a normal distribution of performance ratings. This means there will be a block of people hovering around the mid-point, or average performance level. Not everyone can be a high performer. Be realistic about what you have achieved. Who, amongst your peers, is the top, all-round performer? Compare yourself to them. How do you measure up? Maybe that top performer is you. That’s great, but by the law of averages, most people reading this wont be a top performer. I say again, be realistic.

4. Take a balanced view of your strengths and development needs

It is a strength to seek support in developing your skills. This first requires an understanding of current strengths and skills gaps. No one is the finished article, no matter what they have achieved or at what level they operate. If you are genuinely performing at the top of your game in your current role, fantastic. However, assuming you want to move onwards and upwards, look to the next level for the gaps you need to start filling now. Also, look for how your current strengths might become weaknesses in different roles or environments. As we move through the levels in an organisation we need to take on new perspectives, develop new skills and let go of some old habits.

5. No surprises

Your ultimate aim should be to have no surprises during the appraisal process. During the preceding review period you should have been having regular performance reviews with your manager and speaking to other stakeholders about their experiences. Your manager should have called out any discrepancies and said “well done” for success, as they happened.

If this hasn’t happened, the best you can do is speak to our manager and other stakeholders before the actual appraisal and ask for feedback. Your aim is to get pointers for what the actual appraisal conversation should focus on. This should be a mixture of things that have gone well and things that should improve.

Even with this preparation, you may still be faced with a surprise during the appraisal meeting. Whether this surprise is positive or negative, politely and firmly suggest to your manager that, going forward, you would like this feedback in the moment.

6. Gather evidence and prepare

Gather feedback from stakeholders and have your key performance stats to hand. Fill in all the required paperwork, no matter how repetitive or tedious it might be. Ask trusted peers or more senior colleagues to read it and offer feedback.

Get it to your manager in plenty of time and ask that (s)he read it before the meeting. Go through what you want to say and how you might respond to questions, especially the potentially sticky issues and development areas. Be prepared to challenge any lack of insight the manager might have into your performance. Suggest they speak to stakeholders to gain a more balanced view of your performance if this is lacking.

7. Focus on the conversation, not the paperwork

When in the meeting, assuming your manager has taken the time to read the document, you should be able to focus on the conversation. Remember, this is your appraisal, so make sure you cover all the points you had in mind. Your manager may have an agenda or an habitual way of holding the meetings. That’s fine. Just make sure you have a list of points you wish to make and questions you want to ask and tick them off as you go. Make sure you finish the list before you close the conversation.

The conversation should be more of a dialogue than a debate. If you find yourself debating a particular issue, point this out to your manager. Ask if their is a different way you can both frame the issue to help you come to an agreed perspective on the situation. If not, discuss whether it is important enough to continue the conversation later or whether it is ok to agree to disagree. Remember point 3, be realistic in your expectations.

8. Volunteer to do the write up

This might seem an odd one, but I got all my direct reports to complete all the paperwork for their appraisals, even if the “instructions” said otherwise. It certainly helped them take ownership of the process. I could also see whether their understanding of the conversation was the same as mine.

It’s also much more efficient. 10 people doing 1 write-up each, as opposed to 1 person doing 10 write-ups is a better use of everyone’s time and makes sure they are done in a timely fashion.

9. If necessary, agree to disagree, but if you can’t…take action

As mentioned in 7, agree to disagree on minor points. However, if the disagreement isn’t so minor, then consider the following options:

  • Accept it and move on. Don’t let it fester. Ask how this might be avoided in the future and work to these new goals (assuming they are reasonable). Remember, your aim for the next appraisal will be “no surprises”!
  • Speak to two or three people who have a close enough view of your performance and ask their opinion. Don’t ask the moaners or those that will agree with you for the sake of it. Ask someone who will give you a straight opinion.
  • Ask yourself the question (again) whether you are being realistic in your expectations and assessment of your own performance.
  • Put in an appeal. Most appraisal processes have this built in. If not, consider invoking your company’s grievance procedure.

10. Always keep one eye on your next appraisal

Before, during and after this year’s appraisal, always have in mind the next one. Listen for clues as to what your manager will be expecting from you. Take note of where you disagreed and think about how that might be avoided next time. Think stretch: how might I do more, with less next year.

In summary

At the risk of sounding like a bore: aim for no surprises, be realistic and above all else, take ownership. This is your career, your development. Don’t be a passenger. Take the wheel and drive.

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