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Appraisal Systems - Not Living Up to Their Objectives
By Stuart Avery

Summary: This comprehensive article on performance management provides a brief history and context in which appraisals developed, some criticisms of why they often fail, and some useful tips on the process.

Almost, if not all organisations have them, they?ve been around for a very long time and some organisations swear by them, however on the whole the average appraisal system fails to live up to the expectations of the organisation and often they can cause more trouble than they are worth.

So, minister, here we are at the end of your government and the record doesn't look to good, crime is up, hospital care down, the economy still shaky and poor public services. It certainly doesn't look good for you or your party, do you think you measured up to your objectives? This could be a typical question for any Government on any political review programme and is one that would be difficult to answer. It is rare that those in power are really appraised by anyone other than a tough question by the press, so if those in power don't have formal appraisal processes why do organisations believe that a formal, rigid process will work any better?

Many appraisal systems start out with the best of intentions. Organisations are keen to find out who their top people are and how they are performing, sometimes the appraisal system is used as a down sizing tool to identify the ?less desirable? portion of the organisation. Sometimes the annual appraisal round is tied to a reward system (pay rises and bonuses being the main culprits) and often they are tied in with promotion processes.

At a senior level appraisal systems are looked on as the best way to measure staff performance at grass roots level however the picture is very different with cynicism being the main feeling especially in organisations and industries where reward has been thin on the ground.

A Short History of Appraisal Systems

Appraisal systems have been around since the industrial revolution when they were used to measure the production of a workforce. There were clear definable objectives, produce x number of widgets by Friday, they were by default ?SMART? and very much tied reward as the workers salary was often based upon weekly production.

In today?s service economy the connection of objectives to production starts to look a little bizarre as often there is no direct connection between service delivery and effort required to produce it. For example software development is not based upon the number of lines of code produced but on the quality of the finished product, sales are rarely based upon the number of calls made but more likely on the relationship between the salesman and the customer, and the quality of material produced by a marketing professional will be almost impossible to quantify.

So Why Do We Still Have Goal Based Appraisal Systems?

This is mostly due to work conducted in the 1950?s and 1960?s around the area of objectives. Research was done into the effectiveness of objectives on individual performance and it was found that by allowing individuals to set Specific, Measurable and Realistic goals that were possible to Achieve and had a Time limit imposed upon them then the chances are they would perform better than being given less defined sets of objectives.

Much of this work was done in the Psychology lab and involved highly motivated research students. Although this work has been validated in real life the results are not as clear cut as were originally thought and a number of other variables were found that appear to have been left off of the list

Appraisal Systems ? Where Does it All Go Wrong?

So, we have a measurement system based upon 19th century innovation in mass production and a goal setting mechanism based upon 1950?s psychology research, not a particularly good start. So what?s left? There are a whole range of issues around the appraisal process which also need to be considered, the top concerns are:

1. Halo and Horns ? This is something often mentioned in literature regarding job interviews but appears to be completely ignored when appraisal time comes around. The Halo and Horns effect is the appraisers personal view of the appraised based not upon cold hard facts but on the unconscious internal appraisal by the appraiser. Two individuals both with exactly the same production record can be given widely varying reviews based upon the perception of the reviewer skewing the results in favour of a particular personality type.

2. Good cop/Bad cop ? The quality of an appraisal system depends heavily upon the consistency of the reviewers. In an ideal situation all individuals within an organisation will be reviewed by one individual, however in anything but the smallest business this is impractical and you are left with the impact of human variance.

3. Hearsay or Heresy ? One of the biggest issues in large organisations is history, not of the company although that is important, but of the individual and like all histories it is written by the winners and not the losers. In an appraisal situation the history created around an individual can be very destructive and will influence the Halo and Horns effect.

4. Voter Apathy ? When the psychological work on objective setting was done in the 1950?s and 1960?s it was based upon the study of conscientious and motivated individuals. The later work on objectives in the organisations highlighted as one of the critical issues (and one that has been largely ignored) of the enthusiasm and motivation of the staff for the appraisal system itself. The concept of buy-in is an important one and one that is often overlooked by corporations introducing review systems. The staff being reviewed must agree with the process and accept it as useful otherwise the impact of any review will be of little use.

5. R.E.S.P.E.C.T ? This is a reversal of the Halo and Horns effect in that this applies to the reviewer and not the reviewed. For any feedback to be accepted and effective it needs to come from a respected source, it needs to be consistent and it also needs to be timely.

6. Timing is everything ? Perhaps the greatest failing of organisations when reviewing the performance of staff (whether it be good or bad) often the delay between the behaviour and the review for both good and bad behaviour often to a point where the issue is no longer relevant.

7. Feedback, the breakfast of champions ? Feedback is always considered an important part of the review process however feedback, and it?s counter-part Constructive Criticism have been overused as ways of telling people how they got it wrong, rather than what they got right, and often the feedback process completely misses the point of only focusing on bad behaviour rather than reinforcing good behaviour which is a better use of the process.

So, is it all gloomy for the appraisal system? Should they be scrapped all together? Perhaps measuring staff production is not the way to go? Maybe there is a better approach.

Building a Better Mouse Trap

There are some simple steps that can revolutionise the way that staff are managed throughout the year but they do require some effort on the part of the business however it can pay real dividends in staff motivation and improving performance.

1. Catch people doing things right ? this is old advice and yet in many organisations it has been ignored or just become management mantra without embracing the fundamental concepts. Not only is it about identifying when people do a good job but actually rewarding it. If your organisation values innovation, then reward the innovators even if you don?t like or agree with the innovation.

2. No-one makes mistakes ? if you really want to create an outstanding appraisal process then start with the premise that there are no mistakes just learning experiences. This can sound a little silly, however if you believe that people do the best they can then this ceases to be a stumbling block and if someone makes a ?mistake? it is probably a misunderstanding of their capability.

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3. PRISM? not SMART ? Over the years much has been made of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time bound) and these have worked for many however there are some things that are lacking from this and PRISM? objectives are much more effective

Personal ? For any objective to be effective it needs to be set by and for the individual. Many organisations like to set corporate objectives that everyone signs up to, however in reality unless there is a real motivation to then most individuals will just pay lip service to the idea. Objectives set by and for the individual are automatically bought in to by that individual.

Realistic ? In the old SMART world objectives had to be Realistic and Achievable, in reality for something to be truly realistic it has to be achievable. In the PRISM? world for a goal to be realistic it must be achievable.

Interesting ? For anyone setting objectives for themselves or in the corporate space an objective that is interesting (and enjoyable) is far more likely to be fulfilled than something that an individual has to do.

Specific ? As has been found by all of the goal setting experiments of the past 50 years a goal needs to be specific for it to be really effective. For a goal to be truly specific it needs to include a completion date and is therefore time bound.

Measurable ? In PRISM? terms this means what will you be, do or have when the objective has been reached. What tangible thing can you wave in front of people to show you have achieved your goal.

4. Give real feedback ? This means telling people when things have gone badly or that their behaviour is causing a problem but it is not ?constructive criticism?. If someone does a good job 95% of the time and for 5% of their time they make a hash of it then focus on the 95% rather than the 5%. Appraisal processes and appraisers should think carefully before they focus on the 5%-10% of an individual that is ?underperforming? lest they undermine the 90% that is performing. Perfection is not something that should be aimed for - improvement is.

The Big Question

At the end of the day organisations need to think about their appraisal process and maybe even question the purpose of the annual appraisal. Exactly what are they trying to measure and what the real benefit to the business is? The important question isn?t about how to appraise staff but whether the supposed benefits outweigh the very real damage that appraisal processes can do to well meaning businesses.

?Well, we?ve made significant changes in the way services are delivered, which will have many benefits in the long term, and our record on social reform is excellent?? is a likely response from any government official, does this mean he?s met his objectives? Possibly, but we?ll never know since we never do get to hear what his or for that matter what any political leaders personal objectives are, just like many appraisals what you hear is a well spun story to convince, rather than a statement on the real performance.

More information regarding staff performance, the PRISM? Goal Setting System and additional tools for improving organisational managament can be found at

2005 ? Achieving Greatness Ltd. All rights reserved.


PERMISSION TO REPUBLISH: This article may be republished in newsletters and on web sites provided attribution is provided to the author, and it appears with the included copyright, resource box and live web site link.

L Stuart Avery is the Managing Director of Achieving Greatness Ltd, an organisation dedicated to raising awareness around personal and management behaviours. Achieving Greatness specialises in offering advice and support to organisations going through change intitiatives and looking to enhance the performance of their staff. It provides training courses, facilitiation services and coaching to business leaders on Leadership, Management and Strategy.

Stuart has over 20 years of experience across a wide range of industries including Government, Charities, Retail, Travel, Insurance, IT Services and Logistics.

For more information visit


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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992 by consultant and book author, Robert Bacal. Robert's books on performance management and reviews have been published by McGraw-Hill. He is available for consultation, training and keynote speaking on performance and management at work.


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