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Performance management appraisals: alternatives for the 21st century

Published 8th March 2017 by Melissa Farrington
Appraisal on road sign

There’s been so many examples of organisations kicking appraisals to the curb that you’d think there’s been some sort of revolution going on.

But let’s make a few things clear: many companies, such as Accenture, have simply scrapped annual appraisals, not appraisals in total. When the media reports they’ve ‘killed’ them, they haven’t, just replaced them with something that feels quite different.

There’s also research suggesting organisations scrap performance management appraisals at their peril as it can lead to higher levels of disengagement and less relationship-building time spent between manager and employee.

So no-one’s suggesting performance appraisals are dead - simply that there’s a better way to do them than the standard cookie-cutter once-a-year option.

Here are four alternatives for better organisations and happier employees:

The informal check-in

One of the reasons people don’t get on with performance appraisals is they feel so formal: even thinking about them makes people shudder. The fact they occur so infrequently makes this formality even more apparent.

Informal check-ins are a common replacement - Adobe is one of the highest-profile companies to move to them. In most cases, these check-ins differ from annual performance reviews in a few ways:

  1. They are regular. Instead of one yearly opportunity to review 12 months of activity, these check-ins are designed to be much more frequent, such as weekly or monthly.
  2. The format is flexible. The format of check-ins is, unlike performance appraisals, much less prescriptive, and the line manager and employee are empowered to create a method and process that works for them.
  3. They are two-way. Although performance appraisals are designed to be a two-way conversation, they are defined by hierarchy, whereas informal check-ins are supposed to involve more coaching and shared ownership of goals.

Check-ins are designed to be forward-looking, focused on achieving more together and on timely presentation of advice, feedback, reflection and a positive attitude for moving forwards.

The constant focus on outcomes

Lots of organisations are turning their backs on inputs, time spent on tasks, facetime and other common methods of judging contribution that really just don’t work.

They’re replacing them with outcome-focused cultures, held up by mature policies on flexible working and work-life balance, that are designed to create the conditions in which employees can deliver in ways that suit them.

In this type of environment, the spectrum of acceptability in terms of behaviours and performance around inputs is widened, which makes performance appraisals less necessary in the journey to success.

In fact, the performance appraisal is replaced by a kind of business-as-usual regular discussion - are you on track? Any obstacles? Any behaviours you need to bolster this week?

In this way, it’s less about appraising past performance and more about ensuring behaviours and actions stay aligned with the organisation’s goals on a day-to-day basis. It’s more informal, and therefore less threatening.

The rapid-fire debrief

A favourite of the Red Arrows, these combine a very strong no-blame culture with timely analysis of performance and behaviours to see what can be changed to improve performance next time. It’s done as soon after the fact as possible so emotions, ideas and events are clearest in people's’ minds.

Crucially, when talking about behaviours, the focus is on how behaviours can be improved to better reach optimal outcomes, rather than why the person’s behaviour at the time was wrong. This is a continuous mindset model and it’s a much healthier way of delivering and acting on constructive criticism.

Holistic 360 degree reviews

Many people have a problem with the power plays that occur in performance appraisals: the manager tells you what was bad and what was good.

As innovation and performance in the workplace are increasingly driven by the ability of teams to work cross-functionally and towards a common goal, 360 degree feedback reviews make a lot of sense.

Instead of just focusing on whether performance and behaviours are aligned with organisational KPis, they address a more holistic range of factors, including:

  • Is this person able to put team goals above their own?
  • Is this person a good listener?
  • Are they able to compromise to get things done?
  • Can they motivate others in their team?

This leads to well-rounded discussions and also helps people address personal weaknesses in areas that normally might not get flagged up.

It’s much easier to do 360 degree reviews nowadays: there are advanced software packages that automate the process and collate each person’s feedback into visual reports that clearly highlight strengths and areas for improvement.