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18 April 2016

It's time to change the way we view appraisals

It's time to change the way we view appraisals

by Patrick Goh, head of global HR for Evangelical Alliance member Tearfund


"Do not neglect hospitality, because through it some have entertained angels without knowing it." Hebrews 13:2

The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia, which means loving others by establishing a relationship with them. In this context, this is an invitation to re-imagine the annual performance appraisal meeting as "entertainment". By this I mean being hospitable to the person you are appraising as if he or she were a guest in your home or office, or if you were "entertaining angels unawares".

I probably won't be far wrong if I were to guess at your initial reaction to this invitation. Intrigue… tinged with a large dose of scepticism? That's probably because we've all been conditioned to think that there is a 'right' way of conducting appraisals, which is rigorous and professional, in which case, this suggestion probably sounds like new age thinking gone mad!

As a HR practitioner for more than 25 years, I have learnt that, in essence, there is really only one criterion for a successful appraisal meeting – that it is a meaningful conversation for those involved. If you've always run appraisal meetings that have been so inspirational to people that they have always gone on to accomplish much more, then you probably don't need to read on. If however, you have found these sessions unsatisfying, you might like to give this a try.

The beauty of the hospitality metaphor is that we all know how to be good hosts. The idea is that we simply behave as we do when someone comes to visit – be welcoming, polite, attentive but most of all, curious to learn from your guests. You'd be surprised at how much more you can learn even if you have known your colleagues for a long time, simply by asking questions and listening.

To do this well, we need to shed the notion that leadership is about providing answers; and, that it is possible to objectively evaluate and judge others. Rather than position ourselves as judge, the leaders' role should be about facilitating mutual learning and co-creating meaningful action. The best way to do this is to be curious. As curiosity is contagious, you will find that eventually the conversation eventually becomes a process of mutual inquiry.

Theoretically, this idea is drawn from two social constructionist sources; the work of Miller and Katz on the use of language to co-construct collaborative practice; and a seminar on "withness" by Dr Harlene Anderson, in which she suggests a way of co-constructing local knowledge with others through role reversal.

Theologically, this insight stems from two biblical ideas:

  • That as part of a Trinitarian fellowship, the unique distinctiveness of Christian communities are that we are relational and conversational
  • As with evangelism, genuine collaboration is only possible if it is invitational, or pull not push. I've heard it said that evangelism based on the 'push model' is basically just pestering people. The same can be said about the push model of appraisal.

Start in a way you mean to go on

We know that what we do at the start of the meeting often sets the tone for the whole conversation. So it's important to show that you are genuinely interested in your guest from the first hello. As soon as they arrive, make them feel that you have been looking forward to seeing them, and genuinely interested in hearing what they have to say about their accomplishments and challenges of the past year.

If someone were visiting you for the first time, you would normally ask them to feel at home. You'd probably do this by demystifying the layout of your home by showing them around. You can do something similar for the appraisal session. People tend to be nervous because of the unknown, so start by demystifying the conversation. Other conversational starters might include:

  • Agreeing a time frame
  • Suggesting that the session be conversational and about learning together
  • Urging your guest to treat the conversation (your home) as if it were his or her own (in other words to speak freely)
  • Encouraging them to explore and ponder new insights in a way that's most meaningful for them
  • Inviting them to jointly agree the next steps as you go along.

Be a gracious host: judging versus joining

In their paper about creating collaboration, Miller and Katz observed that most people approach social interaction from a standpoint of judging. According to them: "In judging mode, we size people up, compare them with others and ourselves or see them as competitors or less knowledgeable subordinates, find fault, and engage with them cautiously." For them, judging "places distance between us and others, and it puts a limit on the people being judged – we put them in a box." In this context, people feel small.

This has serious implications on appraisal processes/systems that are predicated on evaluating and assessing employees' performance from a unitary perspective because when people feel judged by others, they often become guarded, uncooperative and mistrustful.

On the other hand, as in the case of hosting a guest, we can start the interaction by what the authors' call 'joining' mode, where the stance is welcoming, open, supportive, and interacting in a way that is intentionally about connecting. Joining invites listening, trust, valuing and challenging (but as friends), without which there can be no genuine collaboration.

Without 'joining', there can be no collaboration. 

Have 'joining' conversations

Firstly, frame your meeting as a 'valuation' – appreciating and learning – conversation, rather than an evaluation process.

Based on the notion that your staff are capable and knowledgeable – after all, they are the ones with firsthand knowledge and insights of their jobs/professions – you might want to try a bit of role reversal. This is a great way to learn from their local knowledge, which in turn, will help you to become a better leader. This is because knowledge that is formulated from within your organisation will often be more relevant, more practical and more sustainable.

In this context, position yourself as the learner and the person you are appraising as the teacher. Ask questions. Be curious. Listen. Pay attention to what's being said, the words and the story. Notice and point to insightful comments. Respond to show that you are understanding what's being shared. Do this through body language, as well as in words. Nod, smile, say: "Yes". "Say more". "That's interesting". "What do you mean by that?" "What's the lesson from that?" "Will that work in other situations and contexts?"

A helpful conversational guide:

  • Don't tell, ask
  • Ensure good turn taking in the conversation
  • Make the conversation interactive
  • Show curiosity
  • Offer what you are noticing for the accounts/stories
  • Be ready to identify and affirm new understanding
  • Explore what new possibilities have been or can be created
  • Don't be nervous when there are silences. These are the spaces where reflection happens.

What about dealing with poor performance?

This is a legitimate question. In my view, however, the annual appraisal meeting is not the occasion to give negative feedback; neither is it the place to deal with poor performance or questionable behaviour. Your organisations should have objective, non-discriminatory and lawful 'capability' processes to deal with capability. This is where under-performance or incompetence should to be tackled.

Routine feedback about performance, should be given in the moment, on a 'just-in-time' basis. The role of a great leader is to inspire people to make course adjustments, to improve or to excel in the moment, not at the annual appraisal meeting at the end of the year. If you do this on daily basis, there should be no need to raise issues of poor performance at the end of the year.

The annual appraisal should be an occasion where you and your colleagues make sense of what has happened during the year by reflecting, valuing, learning, affirming, appreciating and celebrating successes. If you do this, especially with people with whom your relationship is not great, your sessions are more likely to be life-giving and potentially transformational to your work.


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