Peer Appraisal - A More Productive Method?

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Appraisals, regardless of role and of industry can be very stressful processes. Personally

Personally I dislike the word ‘appraisal’ as it sets a mindset of ‘once a year’ so I prefer the term ‘performance review’. However given that ‘appraisal’ is the term most commonly used in industry today I’ll stick with it.

In this article, I would like to explore two ways forward. Firstly I will look at the traditional process for appraisal, that of the employee: manager, one to one, and then look at a process I believe companies could potentially adopt. This is the peer appraisal or peer review process where the employees appraise each other with senior managers simply reviewing and ”rubber stamping” appraisal outcomes.

Firstly let’s look at the standard method of appraisal for both the employee and managers in today’s industry. This is still very much a one to one process and if this is done correctly and skilfully it can be very productive and motivational but it also depends on a number of crucial factors.

1. The manager facilitating the appraisal must be capable with good appraisal skills, up to date correct information and have no favourites within his or her team.

2. The Appraisee must also have good influencing skills and have their appraisal information up to date in order to present their case.

3. Theoretically, the end of year appraisal should be a “rubber-stamping” exercise and in effect should be a “4th Quarter Review” with no surprises. As the previous three quarter reviews will have been structured in order to review business and personal development plans and to monitor and guide the progress of each, the 4th quarter review should hold no surprises what so-ever. In fact I firmly believe in monthly reviews so that performance can be carefully monitored and kept on track.

This all sounds pretty straightforward but in my experience there are a number of challenges that both managers and employees face in getting to a situation where the year-end appraisal is as straightforward and “painless” as it should be.

1. Many managers do not hold structured quarterly or monthly reviews where time is taken to analyse fully the employee’s business performance and their development plan. This is due to in most cases the manager’s workload and also on the priority that they place on the performance reviews.

2. Many managers by the time it comes to the year end appraisal, go into them with their mind made up as to what a particular employee is going to get in terms of a performance or appraisal rating. It is all decided on limited, top-line information and perhaps “gut feel”.

3. On the other hand, in many cases, employees go into the appraisal with a mindset that says, “I’ll just have to accept to accept what my manager gives me”.
Bad and ineffective appraisals lead to individual de-motivation and ineffective teamwork. So what should managers be doing to make their one to one appraisals more effective and motivational?

a. Make sure they have good, effective appraisal skills. These skills include contracting, listening, performance coaching, giving and receiving feedback, motivation, and objective setting. Without these skills then the appraisal will not be as productive or motivational as they should be.

b. Managers should go into appraisals with an open mind and be prepared to be influenced by facts and figures not by judgements. Managers’ knowledge of their employees and their progress against objectives should be kept up to date.

c. Ensure that the managers hold regular reviews where they are guiding and coaching employees towards their “appraisal aims”. The benefit of this is that the manager will know whether an employee is “on track” at any given point during the year. Quarterly reviews are regular enough without being too frequent. Anything less frequent, I would suggest is unacceptable. Monthly, on an informal basis, is ideal.

If a manager follows these steps then the year-end appraisal is very much a “rubber stamping” exercise and can be used to start the planning for the following year, rather than just concentrating on the year just passed.

But what about alternative methods of appraisal?  I was heavily involved in pilot work in the pharmaceutical industry whereby we put in place processes to move appraisals from being run by the manager to being run by the team and where instead of the traditional manager: employee appraisal, appraisals were done in ‘peer groups’ where each individual was appraised and supported by the team as a whole.

At first there was great reluctance from management to go down this route. The reasons for not wanting to move to peer appraisal (as per manager feedback) were as follows:

a. “Not enough time to train the team members in how to perform peer appraisal.”

b. “No internal expertise to ensure good skills uptake and to facilitate such peer meetings”

c. “It’s quicker and less stressful just to tell them what performance rating they are getting”.

d. “The manager is “scared” of giving up control, either in terms of how they might look to their senior managers or in terms of their belief in the ability of their employees to give themselves “honest” appraisal ratings”.

e. “It’s change – and not the way we do things round here!”

Having said that many managers I have interviewed could see the benefits:

a. “Done well, I can see a lot honesty coming out. I know that there can be discontent when some employees appear to get a better appraisal rating than perhaps they should get”

b. “It would help the employees to grow as a result of the fairness and honesty. It would also help the trust levels between employees and managers”

c. “We would probably get a better picture of reality.”
d. “I believe that the skills of both the employees and managers would increase as a result”

e. “Although I am wary of how best we could do this, I see that it could free up a lot my time. Time that I could use to move the business forward”

There are numerous advantages to going down the route of peer appraisal but it is very tough and does not happen overnight! There are some essential skills and mindsets needed in order for it to happen productively.

1. Managers need to have the mindset that says “My team is composed of mature, capable adults who given time, support and the right skills, will make this initiative work” If you do not have this mindset as a manager do not attempt this – in fact if you do not have this mindset then, I my opinion, you should not be managing full stop!

2. Another mindset that managers must have when involved in peer appraisal process personally is to ensure that they have an interest in seeing their peers succeed. There can be no place for internal competition and in no way can this process be seen as a way of “getting back” at peers who have perhaps been in conflict with the individual. Team members must have an interest and knowledge of each individual’s business and development objectives and be as supportive as possible.

3. Managers should be leading the way and in their own particular management team, be going through the process first.
 
4. Managers must have the skills to ensure the process works. The main skills are that of giving and receiving feedback and of facilitation. These are two skills which, in my experience, managers need to work a lot on. They are difficult skills to grasp but well worth the time and effort. Managers must also have courage to give the constructive feedback and to challenge inappropriate and negative behaviours in their peers.

5. Communication must be of the highest order. People must know what is happening; why it is happening and what the various steps are that will enable it to happen. As in any selling situation, the benefits to every individual must be clearly spelt out and each manager should take time with each individual to make sure they fully understand what is happening and what the benefits are to the individual.

6. Planning skills must be good also. In the early days time must be built in so that training and trial runs take place. In today’s high-pressure industry with the need for results paramount, spending time on any form of development sometimes becomes an after-thought.

All in all my experience of supporting the implementation of such a peer appraisal scheme (and also of taking part personally) is that it is fraught with emotion and negativity to begin with, but with perseverance and patience, when implemented well it is definitely the way forward.

If managers can demonstrate the skills and are not afraid to trust their employees, then peer appraisal can work for both manager and the team, and work incredibly well. But make no mistake – it is very, very tough in the short term.

As a manager do you have the skills, mindset and determination to give this a try or are you too scared to upset the “apple cart”?


About

Allan Mackintosh is a Training and Development professional who has been in the industry since 1982.

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